The History of ESL / Bilingual Education

In the United States, bilingualism has existed since the early days of colonial times. On the island of Manhattan, many languages were spoken in the mid- 1600s according to Crawford (2004), with French, German, Irish, Swedish, Dutch and Welsh being among the most popular languages. One can thus conclude that bilingual education in the United States has its roots as far back as the year 1664 during the first settlements in North America. Adding to the various Native-American languages, in the 17th century United States, there were at least eighteen languages being spoken. Groups with various linguistic and cultural backgrounds continued to settle across the country in the 18th and 19thcenturies, prompting some states to begin the adoption of bilingual education laws that permitted the use of other languages besides English to give instruction. The fear of immigrants and their cultural heritage was heightened at the turn f the 20th century prompting the efforts of the Americanization of immigrants by teaching them Anglo-Saxon culture and values.

Anglo-conformity was encouraged so much that immigrants especially those living in urban areas were encouraged to replace their cultural heritage with a more American one through assimilation. These led to the submerging of non-English speakers who found themselves in English-only classroom without instructions in a second language. The only exception to this would be the few communities where students were taught in their native languages. Most bilingual schools in the United States had been taken down by the mid-1920s in relation to the efforts by Ellwood P. Cubberly and others that led to restrictions of language in many states within the country and territories without the United States. This imposition of English as the only language of instruction in public schools was carried out over the years until the government saved the situation by sanctioning bilingual programs in the 1960s.

Dade County, Florida was among the first large-scale government sanctioned bilingual program in 1963, forming the unofficial model for the country with countrywide educators examining their curriculum of bilingual schooling for English Language Learners (ELL). This followed closely the significant rise in the number of Cuban immigrants during the 1960s. In response to the rising demand for ESL methodologies and ESL materials due to the influx of international students, refugees and immigrants in the United States, a professional organization dubbed Teachers of English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) was established in 1966.The special educational needs of non/limited- English speaking children were first acknowledged nationally by the passing of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. Congress passed this act under Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In 1974, the chancellor of education in New York City was ordered by a Federal Court to develop sufficient bilingual programs that included intensive instructions in English and content instruction in Spanish. This order was as a result of a suit by the Puerto Rican Legal and Educational Fund.

Also in 1974, the expectation that a form of comprehensive strategy addressing the needs of non-English speaking students should be adopted by school systems was set by the landmark Lau case. Although the Supreme Court declined to mandate any particular model of a strategy to cater to the need of non-English speaking students, it ruled in the Lau v. Nichols Case that Lau and 1,789 other students of Chinese heritage based in San Francisco were being denied access to Equal Educational Opportunities. The court arrived at this ruling based on the fact that the students could not understand sufficiently the language of instruction. Funding for Limited English Proficient (LEP) students or ELL are facilitated to varying degrees by the programs funded by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which were reorganized into two divisions in 1984. Money for migrant education programs and disadvantages students is provided by Title I, while laws such as ‘Emergency School Aid Act’ and ‘Ethnic Heritage Act’ are provided with money in block grants to the state.

A one-year Structured English Immersion (SEI) program was mandated to schools in 1998, after the passing of Proposition 227 in California during the primary election. Although parents are at liberty to opt out of this program, it was instrumental in the restructuring of education for language minority students with higher rates of English uptake by LEP students. With strong feelings towards the alleged failure of bilingual education, in 2000 Arizona went to the polls and voted against bilingual education by passing Proposition 203 claiming that immigrant students of Hispanic heritage remain trapped in Spanish classes. This move by Arizona is part of an ongoing debate with others states contemplating the benefits of bilingual education programs and whether or not to keep supporting them.

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