Race, Identity, and Language

For those who are growing up or have been raised in the United States with a home language different from English, language is part and parcel of identity. Yet because in the United States the level of prestige given to various languages has always been tied to race, language (and therefore, identity) has always been denied to students from particular backgrounds. Let us take a closer look at the history of language education and how it relates to race.

From the very beginning, when Africans were kidnapped and brought enslaved to the Americas, they were never allowed to speak their languages. Enslavers had to deny language in order to maintain dominance and control over those whom they had kidnapped. Today, society as a whole continues to look down upon African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which linguistics have explained to have roots in older forms of English and West African languages. Some school districts have attempted to recognize and elevate AAVE, previously known as Ebonics, as a separate language. The majority, however, continues to call AAVE  “broken English” rather than recognize it as a legitimate home language.

On the other hand, White, European languages have always been considered superior. For example, the first laws supporting bilingual schools supported schools that taught German and French. In 1839, Ohio passed the first pro-bilingual law by permitting German-English bilingual schools. Then, in 1847, Louisiana passed a law permitting French-English bilingual schools and in 1850, New Mexico territory passed a law allowing for Spanish-English bilingual schools. While these laws supported teaching European languages to heritage speakers, in 1864 the United States passed an English-only law that banned Native Americans from being able to teach their native languages to their own children at their own schools. Soon after, in a continued attempt to “kill the Indian, save the man,” the infamous Native American Boarding Schools opened. In these inhumane camps, kidnapped children were interred and physically punished for speaking their home languages. Hence, although heritage languages were often protected by law for White children, African American and Native American children were consistently denied access to their own languages and thus, violently stripped of their identities.

This is not to say that European descendants did not face any backlash when it came to speaking and learning their languages. In the United States, although non-English, European languages have always held a higher status than non-White languages, English still has always held a higher status than other European tongues. For instance, although at the turn of the century 4% of American school children were in German-English bilingual programs, in 1888 Wisconsin and Illinois passed the first English-only acts against European languages, particularly targeting German-English bilingual schools. Furthermore, in 1906, naturalization for immigrants became tied to English proficiency for the first time. With the advent of World War I, backlash against German-descent Americans grew even stronger. By 1923, 34 states had passed English-only acts, dismantling over a hundred years of bilingual education. Finally, in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act established quotas that largely limited immigration, which greatly reduced the demand for bilingual schooling.

It was not until the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and immigration reform, that bilingual education returned to the forefront. President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted in 1968 the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), an act that encouraged bilingual education for “children of limited-English speaking ability.” The most common language for these new bilingual programs was Spanish rather than German. However, because Spanish was now associated with Mexico and other Latin American countries where the White population had largely mixed with the indigenous population, the language was no longer thought of as a white, European language (Sada, 2020). Hence, the same racial hierarchy that influenced language acceptance and cultural assimilation a century earlier resumed its role in creating backlash against bilingual education. For example, subsequent revisions of the BEA emphasized the importance of moving students quickly to English-only, mainstream classrooms. In the late 1970s and 1980s, transitional bilingual programs, programs that use the home language only long enough to transition students to English-only programs, were emphasized under the BEA. And in 2001, with No Child Left Behind, the BEA was replaced with the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act. This act presented new challenges for bilingual education such as prioritizing high-stakes standardized testing in English – challenges that educators and families are still battling today.

Given what we know about the past, if we want to be antiracist, we must continue to fight for our students who speak Languages Other Than English (LOTE) at home and for their rights to Dual Language Education. Dual Language Education allows students whose home language is the partner language to develop academic skills and literacy in both their home language and in English, thus, preserving students’ identity, culture, and connections to family members. This is especially important for students who are from racial minorities, since as seen in the history of language education in the United States, these are the students who most face pressures to culturally assimilate. Dual Language Education, when centering language minority students, is a calling for justice that can only be accomplished when we understand the past and tirelessly advocate for the future.

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is the founder and Chief Advocate for Students at Language and Equity Education Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that supports schools and school districts to build and improve their multilingual programming, especially their Dual Language Education programs. Through Language and Equity, she provides professional development, consulting, and coaching. For the past few years, Dr. Mudambi has run her popular blog, Social Justice and Education. She has taught several courses such as Intercultural Communications, TESOL Methods, and Assessments for Bilingual Students at Eastern Connecticut State University. Furthermore, she serves as the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools in Massachusetts where she oversees Dual Language programs in Spanish and Portuguese. Additionally, she worked as the Director of Bilingual Education at Windham Public Schools, not only overseeing and restructuring Windham’s Two-Way Dual Language program, Compañeros, but also founding and building Dos Ríos, New England’s first One-Way Dual Language program. Dr. Mudambi has served as a building leader, a Dual Language teacher, an ESOL teacher, and a Spanish teacher. She has worked in India, Mexico, France, England, and The United States. You can reach Dr. Mudambi at arm977@mail.harvard.edu.

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