English Only Policy

“Jinni, I heard you speaking in Korean. You know you shouldn’t speak Korean, especially as the class representative. I’ll let you go for today but be careful from now on,” said Mrs. Martinez. I still remember the jolt I felt in my heart when my English teacher emerged from behind the toilet door. Starting from seventh grade, I attended an international school that imposed an “English Only Policy” or EOP. I didn’t think it was fair that a school limited students’ ability to speak a second language (especially in the bathroom, during break!). The “only” in the policy name also seemed misplaced in a multi-cultural international school in the 21st Century.

But lo and behold, this exact policy was promoted in the United States in the early 1900s. (Talk about democracy!) Due to World War I, anti-German sentiments spurred a rapid spread of anti-foreign language regulations in schools. In 1923, Robert T. Meyer, a teacher at a Parochial school, was even convicted for reading a German bible to his student. (Talk about teachers’ rights!) Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Meyer innocent saying that being proficient in a foreign language does not harm students’ health, morals, or understanding. What’s interesting is that the Supreme Court did NOT rule the English Only Policy unconstitutional. Its focus on the student’s bilingualism rather than the State’s law is indicative of America’s stance as an English-speaking country and that limiting the languages used in American schools is permissible. (1)

This left English Language Learners either to “sink or swim” in classes until the 1960s. With the Civil Rights Movement, bilingual education was legitimized in 1968. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Bilingual Education Act prohibited discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin” in any federally endorsed programs. Moreover, funds were allocated by the federal government to support bilingual education programs in American public schools. (1)

The Bilingual Education Act was an addition to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, providing funds for the development of innovative bilingual programs and research. Granted, this legislature did not specify or enforce mandatory bilingual education in schools. Rather, schools willing to provide the service had to request the funds. However, this was a great improvement from the English Only Policy. It also established a legal ground for bilingual students, acknowledging them as entities worthy of federal protection.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act encompassing the Bilingual Education Act has been revisited occasionally until in 2002, a new name was given: No Child Left Behind (NCLB). (2) Under this new legislation, the Bilingual Education Act officially became Title III, English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act. Although NCLB neither prohibits nor encourages bilingual education, it does eliminate specific references to bilingualism in the federal education law. For instance, the previous act addressed the importance of developing students’ native language, whereas no such indication is made in NCLB. (3)

As an international student, I must admit that I empathize with the bilingual minority in the United States; and from this perspective, I do not know what to make of this change. Does deleting references to bilingualism destroy social justice in American education? Has this change deprived certain students the right to be educated properly? Does this promote equality or destroy it? In my subsequent blog posts, I will delve into the different types of bilingual education programs initiated under each act and examine how such change affected the instructions of bilingual students in academic settings.


  1. History of Language Minority Education in the United States by Marguerite Malakoff and Kenji Hakuta: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED329635.pdf#page=27
  2. U.S. Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov/esea
  3. National Association for Bilingual Education: http://www.nabe.org/NCLB
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2 Responses to English Only Policy

  1. gabbylap says:

    I really appreciate your perspective on the mentality that many have when it comes to English being the dominant, some would assert, only language used in schools. Although I agree that speaking English has its place in schools in the U.S., no child should feel the need to tame their cultural authenticity. The EOP speaks volumes, and isn’t solely indicative of the goal of minimizing diversity of language of school. EOP epitomizes the reinforcement of mainstream education, societal, and moral values. It’s bizarre to me how aware we are to undermining cultural differences and marginalizing minorities, yet our policies contradict what we recognize and attempt to improve. In Education, a lot of passed policy seems to move us one step forward then two backward.

    Your blog pairs nicely with our readings for next class! It compliments the many discussions on policy and the inherent political goals that underly them. However, I do wish you went into more details on how you think the government or other policy makers could remedy the situation and introduce more support for bilingual education. It’s evident that there should be more of a supporting mechanism for students who didn’t learn English as there first language.

    Liked by 1 person

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