My first language is Bangla. As a child, who had just immigrated to the United States, I struggled to acquire English as my second language. My younger brother had it worse. To the point where his kindergarten teacher, who was monolingual and not trained in bilingual education, sent a note home to our parents expressing her concern that my brother might have a learning disability.

My parents, as immigrants from a developing country who began a life in America so their children could have access to more opportunities for success, took my brother to the doctor feeling anxious and uneasy. The doctor assured them he’s fine – as a five-year-old bilingual child, it was completely natural for him to mix up his languages. The doctor also strongly advised my parents to keep speaking Bangla at home, so we don’t lose our bilingual ability. The problem was, my brother’s teacher didn’t understand any of this before sending that note home.

English-only approach to education is regressive and disadvantageous to students of color, especially students who are immigrants or children of immigrants.

I know people who have lost the ability to speak their mother tongues because their teachers were concerned that they would never learn English properly if they kept speaking another language. A friend of mine had a doctor who told her parents the opposite of what my brother’s doctor told my parents.

This English-only (standard English-only, really) approach to education is regressive and disadvantageous to students of color, especially students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. Studies show, like this one from the American Councils Research Center, that dual language programs afford students incredible “educational gains.” Dual language classrooms usually consist of half non-native English speakers and half native English speakers; everything is taught in two languages – usually English and the language of the non-native English speakers.

These dual language programs allow all students, both non-native and native English speakers, to develop bilingualism and biliteracy at high levels of proficiency in both languages. Imagine a Spanish-speaking student who is still at the early stages of learning English being able to take an exam in their own language and excelling, rather than being forced to take the exam in English and risk failing, simply because they didn’t understand the language. Dual language programs enable students to be tested on their own merit and abilities, rather than measuring them up against an unfair standard and system designed to set them up for failure. These programs are a matter of educational equity.

In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was passed. This act provided federal funding to school districts to create bilingual education programs. However, resistance to this act began in the seventies and eighties as the rate of immigration from non-European countries increased. Proposition 227, led by Robert Unz, was passed in California in 1998 and it effectively mandated English-only programs. Eventually, Arizona and Massachusetts passed similar bills in the years following. These three states comprise 40 percent of the students who are in need of dual language programs. The largest protests against this act happened in California, staged by Latinx students.

English-only ideologies come from an Americanization movement that has persisted in the US since the 19th century. Americanization is what led to the extinction and near extinction of most Indigenous languages in this country. The goal of the boarding schools that forcefully assimilated Native Americans into white America was to eradicate the Indigenous identity.

Similarly, the goals of English-only programs we see today come from racist and anti-immigrant ideologies. Proponents of these programs, like educational leader Kevin Clark, argue that English language proficiency will ensure students success and that bilingualism is detrimental to gaining proficiency in English – but there is no evidence of this. Applied linguistic experts such as Stephen Krashen and Kellie Rolstad have done numerous studies on the academic benefits of multilingualism.

Currently, 35 states in the US offer dual language education programs, but these programs are not state mandated, so only selected school districts offer them. It is most definitely not enough to cover the needs of all students. California repealed Proposition 227 just four years ago in 2016, and Massachusetts did the same in 2017. Arizona has yet to repeal the proposition.

Americanization is a xenophobic ideology that aims to rid America of difference and diversity

A study by the American Federation of Teachers in 2014 found that 60 percent of emergent bilinguals are educated in English-only programs. These programs entail taking students out of normal classes for up to four hours a day and making them take what are essentially ESL classes. This means they miss out on normal class material and lectures and get less time with their teachers.

This is also a practice of educational segregation in which native English speakers and non-native English speakers are pitted against each other. Furthermore, teachers and staff are poorly trained to understand bilingualism and bilingual education. If my brother’s kindergarten teacher was able to convince my parents he had a learning disability, my brother would have been put in separate classes to address a nonexistent disability. This is the story of many non-native English speakers and bilingual students.

All these studies and statistics aside, the fact remains that the attitude toward emergent bilingual students is hostile, anti-immigrant, and racist. Americanization is a xenophobic ideology that aims to rid America of difference and diversity. Brown and Black students are systemically disadvantaged in schools – that means this is intentional. Couple this with the fact that most emergent bilingual students also come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and we begin to see the connections in the overall infrastructure of America that keep Brown and Black students from achieve their potentials. Dual language programs are a matter of educational equity – something that affects students for their entire lives. They are bilingual students’ best chance for success and opportunity.

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  • Dola Haque

    Dola Haque is a Master of Arts student in English at Northeastern University. Her research includes rhetorics of immigration and race, global feminisms, and narratives and storytelling. Language is her obsession. She is an aspiring novelist and public scholar who hopes to crush the hetero-normative patriarchy while unapologetically finding ways to be joyful and singing her way through life.