Bilingual ed: choice or coercion?

This fall, Massachusetts and Colorado will vote on ballot measures requiring schools to place all non-English speakers in English-immersion classes. California and Arizona have already passed similar measures, reversing a 30-year-old policy of teaching science, math, and other regular subjects in students' native languages

All of these measures restrict parental "choice." Is that a good or a bad thing? It depends upon whom you ask and which issue you're discussing. Republicans denounce bilingual education but in the same breath advocate parents' choice with school vouchers. On the other side, Democrats say "yes" to choice for bilingual education but argue against school vouchers.

When bilingual-education advocates speak of choice, moreoever, they usually mean their choice. For the past two decades, Hispanic parents have complained that educators urged or even forced their children to enroll in bilingual programs. Now with their backs against the wall, these same educators proudly proclaim the virtues of parental selection. But would they rest easily if parents chose to reject bilingual education?

In the 19th century, public schools offered a wide array of linguistic options – including dual-language programs, where children studied in English during half the day and in German during the other. But World War I brought these experiments to an abrupt halt. Amid a wave of wartime hysteria and "100-percent Americanism," at least 14 states barred German from their schools; one state even made it illegal to speak German on the phone. "What this nation needs is a hundred million hard hearts toward Germany," declared one Ohio educator. "German instruction in the schools tends to soften them."

Other languages suffered, as well. In the wake of the war, at least 21 states passed laws restricting foreign-language instruction. Some states barred non-English classes in primary grades; others required English as a "medium of instruction" for all basic subjects.

Many states and school districts relaxed these restrictions in the 1920s and 1930s, allowing students to register for a broad range of foreign languages: Czech, Italian, and Hebrew as well as German, French, and Spanish. In the immigrant press, ethnic spokesmen urged children to take their "native" languages.

For the most part, classes in "immigrant" languages soon melted away for lack of students, prompting a cascade of chagrin among immigrant leaders. "Our own Czech students seem indifferent!" a Bohemian newspaper exclaimed in Chicago in 1917, bemoaning low-student enrollment in its "native" language. "Is this not painful, and does it not cover us with shame?"

In fact, most immigrants didn't speak these languages at all. Italians spoke Neapolitan or Sicilian, not classical Italian; Germans spoke "Germerican," a fusion of German and English; and Jews spoke Yiddish, reserving Hebrew for religious worship. Indeed, the effort to foist "pure" European languages upon immigrants reflected its own subtle brand of linguistic coercion. Just as self- described "100-percent Americans" tried to blot out all foreign languages, ethnic activists urged a pristine "mother tongue" upon children who didn't share it.

Today, at the dawn of a new century, both types of coercion are alive and well. The Colorado and Massachusetts measures reflect the right-wing tradition of 100-percent Americanism, requiring everybody to study in English. But many bilingual advocates continue to engage in the leftist version of coercion, pressing immigrants to study in their allegedly native idiom.

What if both sides agreed to let parents choose – really choose – their own forms of language instruction? The right would have to renounce its new penchant for state mandates, which obviously preclude parents from picking the bilingual option. But the left would need to allow these citizens to select English immersion, the bête noire of bilingual educators for more than three decades.

If we really believed in choice, in short, we would encourage all citizens to make their own choices about bilingual education. That would cut against a major grain of our history, to be sure, but our destiny is still up for grabs.

• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools' (Harvard, 2002).

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