Naming and interrogating our English only legacy.

Author:Bartolome, Lilia I.

Any man [sic] who comes here must adopt ... the native tongue of our people.... It would be a crime ... to perpetuate differences in language in this country.

These words, written more than a century ago by Theodore Roosevelt, could easily be misperceived as being written today in support of English-only laws and mandates. A recent Washington Post headline reads "Spanish at School Translates to Suspension"--a story about a high school junior in Kansas City who was suspended for a day and a half for responding to a friend's request in the school hallway with "no problema." (1)

States such as California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have ushered in modern-day versions of non-English language prohibition. We refer to these English-only mandates as "modern-day prohibition" because if we examine history, we find that although there have been exceptional moments in time (1960s to the 1980s) when languages other than English have been tolerated in schools and other institutions, the practice of forbidding the use of non-English languages has constituted the more prevalent language practice in the U.S.

What we are experiencing currently across the nation, as in the past, is what Terrence Wiley (1999) refers to as the veiled (and not so veiled) racist "prevailing English-only ideology in the United States [which] not only positions English as the dominant language, but also presumes universal English monolingualism to be a natural and ideal condition.... [This] English monolingual ideology sees language diversity as a problem that is largely a consequence of immigration, and it equates the acquisition of English with assimilation, patriotism, and what it means to be an 'American'" (25-26). In order to comprehend the current xenophobic English-only movement, it is necessary to critically understand this nation's assimilationist and English monolingual legacy not only in terms of its application to past European immigrants but most importantly, for our discussion, in terms of its application to indigenous and nonwhite linguistic minorities.

In addition to making this distinction, we contend that it is necessary to take a critical socio-historical perspective in order to begin to do what noted critical pedagogue Paulo Freire (1985) encouraged educators to do when confronted with educational problems or obstacles faced by subordinated student populations. Freire argued that in order to solve an educational problem, it was necessary to first comprehensively and historically understand the problem--that is, to comprehensively "construct" the problem. The next step, after situating the problem historically, is to critically analyze it--to "deconstruct" the issue. The third and final step is to imagine alternative possibilities, to realistically dream about implementing more humane democratic solutions--to "reconstruct" the problem and develop a solution. Our intention in this volume, with the contributions of Berta Berriz, Margaret Adams and Kellie Jones, and Elizabeth Garza, is precisely that--to critically construct the current English-only, native-language prohibition state of affairs so as to deconstruct it and then reconstruct it in order to come up with ways to better intellectually prepare and politically arm linguistic-minority students rather than set them up for academic failure and life on the margins of society.


As expressed in the work of many of the early anti-colonial theorists/revolutionaries, imperialists have always understood the relationship between knowledge and power and its central role in controlling the psyche of people, public opinion, and consequently in maintaining systems of oppression. (2) They recognized how material conditions, politics, and culture are interlaced and how subordination and opposition take place in both the physical and symbolic realms. As such, colonizers and fascists alike immediately go after schools, media, and other public spheres that produce and disseminate knowledge.

The U.S. is no stranger to this colonizing philosophy and practice of cultural invasion. When we examine language policy in regards to domestic linguistic-minority groups such as Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Mexican Americans in the Southwest, and descendents of enslaved Africans, we find that the sanctioned practice of linguistic suppression and cultural domestication has been the historical norm. One only has to examine the case of enslaved Africans, the first victims of repressive policies. Enslaved Africans were forbidden from speaking their native tongues and teaching them to their children under the threat of brutal punishment. Furthermore, compulsory illiteracy laws were passed in southern colonies to prohibit them from learning to read or write. If we examine the legacy of Native Americans, we see that they too underwent horrific repressive policies that kept them separated from and subordinate to the white dominant culture. They were treated as dependent wards, had their lands taken away by whites, and their children were forced into boarding schools, many of which were former military bases, and systematically stripped of their language and culture. Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest suffered similarly after the U.S. conquest of what used to be northwest Mexico.

This colonial legacy would feed into the English-only ideology which became hegemonic during WWI with the rise of the Americanization movement and the rampant persecution of speakers of German. However, in examining the origins of English-only ideologies we must highlight the differences between the experiences of European immigrants such as German and Polish immigrants and nonwhite subordinated minorities. As Wiley (1999) explains, "despite the severity of the attack on the German language and the persecution of German Americans during WWI, there was no systematic effort to segregate them from Anglo Americans, as was the case for language minorities of color in the years following WWI" (28). This was certainly the case during WWII when Japanese Americans were stripped of their property and interned while the German American and Italian Americans were not. In fact, Asian Americans also have faced a long history of brutality in the U.S.

According to Ronald Schmidt (as cited in Wiley, 1999) the experience of linguistic minorities of color has been noticeably different from that of European immigrants in several respects:

  1. Nonwhite linguistic minorities were extended the benefits of public education more slowly and grudgingly than were European Americans despite the fact that they too were taxed for this.

  2. When education was offered to nonwhite linguistic minorities, it was usually done in segregated and inferior schools.

  3. Nonwhite linguistic-minority groups' cultures and languages were denigrated by public educators and others. In addition, these groups were denied the opportunity to maintain and perpetuate their cultural heritage through the public schools.

  4. Reflective of these visible forms of rejection and exclusion by the dominant group in society, the education that was offered was exclusively assimilationist and functioned, not to integrate the groups into the dominant culture, but to subordinate and socialize them for second class citizenship. (List taken and modified from Wiley; 1999; 28) (3)

It is important to reiterate that even though language policies aimed at European immigrants and nonwhite linguistic-minority groups can also be described as "assimilationist," in the case of nonwhites, they involved a domestication rather than integration dimension. Taking away the native tongue, while never really giving access to the discourse of power, is a common practice in any colonial model of education. Such a deskilling process in which people are rendered semi-literate in both languages effectively works to deny them access to the mainstream while simultaneously taking away essential tools that can be used to build the cultural solidarity necessary to resist exploitation and democratize and transform society. Donaldo Macedo, Bessie Dendrinos, and Panayota Gounari (2003) powerfully explain the distinctive and oppressive nature of what they call "colonial bilingualism."

There is a radical difference between a dominant speaker learning a second language and a minority speaker acquiring a dominant language. While the former...

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