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Schools and the Politics of Bilingual Education [The Atlantic]

Written on 30 October 2015, 08:15am under As Seen In

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I took Latin in high school. This basically qualifies me to read prescription abbreviations. In retrospect I wish I had studied French or Spanish. I don’t take excessive pride in the fact that I only speak English – I find it limiting and somewhat stifling. In a country as diverse as the U.S., being bilingual is something to treasure rather than discard or reject. And when the push for children to learn English in schools supplants their first language, culture and heritage, we have to ask whether something critical is lost.

Even as states struggle to reach a common definition of what it means to be an English language learner, the proportion of these students continues to rise—and with it, the temperature of debate surrounding the purpose and goals of bilingual education. It remains an unsettled issue that continues to challenge America’s self-image as welcoming and inclusive: The value of linguistic assimilation is pitted against the values of a culturally diverse nation of immigrants, leaving education systems and its students caught in political crosshairs. The divide is exacerbated by financially strapped schools with skyrocketing numbers of English learners—meeting all of the mandates for their education can be expensive—and the national discourse on immigration, which saw the 2016 presidential contender Donald Trump advise his competitor Jeb Bush to “really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Today, schools are still twisting in the wind of politics, with 31 states passing laws naming English the official language over the last two centuries and voters in CaliforniaArizona, and Massachusetts approving ballot measures in recent decades that replace bilingual education with English-only policies. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of educators are promoting the cultivation of bilingualism to support the social and emotional needs of English language learners.

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