The Connections among Immigration, Nation Building, and Adult Education English as a Second Language Instruction in the United States

By Ullman, Char | Adult Learning, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Connections among Immigration, Nation Building, and Adult Education English as a Second Language Instruction in the United States


Ullman, Char, Adult Learning


Since its inception at the turn of the last century, adult education English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction in the United States has been entwined with immigration processes and ideas of the nation. In spite of current uncertainty about the overhauling of federal immigration policy, increasingly anti-immigrant laws in states such as Arizona, and attempts to restrict immigration in cities like Hazelton, Pennsylvania, demand for ESL instruction continues to be the fastest-growing sector of adult basic education (U.S. Department of Educational Statistics, 2005).

Adult educators need to know about the origins of English-language teaching in the United States because the past can reveal ways to better shape the future. History invites us to use imagination to enter the lives of our predecessors, a kind of cross-cultural experience through time. Indeed, none of us has come to our worldview through logic alone; we are all formed in large part by our own personal and social histories. "History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier" (Fry, 2006, p. 3). This article offers a history of adult education ESL instruction in the United States, followed by a discussion of key issues in the immigration literature that impact adult educators and their work in program development and classroom teaching.

A Brief History of Adult Education ESL

Adult education ESL originated as part of the settlement house movement, made famous by Hull House in Chicago. Founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889 (Addams, 1910), Hull House served the needs of recent immigrants, most of whom were from Southern and Eastern Europe. Settlement houses marked the beginning of the field of social work in the United States, and adult education classes, including English education, were intimately linked to that endeavor.

Around the same time, the ethnic press was emerging in large industrial cities, and with it came ethnic organizations devoted to maintaining the immigrant's native languages and cultures (Mohl, 1982). The Polish, German, and Irish were able to create parochial schools, but Chinese, Greek, Russian, and Jewish immigrants faced more barriers, and established afternoon and weekend classes. Ethnic organizations were run by immigrants, and their goals were to teach English and promote bilingualism/biculturalism for youth.

The International Institutes

Around 1910, the International Institute movement began as part of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). International Institutes assisted immigrants in finding housing and work, and they offered English classes. The YWCA, a Protestant organization, grew from the social gospel movement, which emphasized the protection of women and immigrants over evangelism (Mohl, 1982). The International Institutes' pluralistic approach to immigration was in stark contrast to that of the public schools, where the unabashed goal was to eliminate immigrant languages and cultures in order to produce Americans.

Before, during, and after WWI, anti-immigrant sentiment was steadily building in the United States, and the founder of the International Institutes movement, Edith Terry Bremer, spoke against the xenophobic discourses of the time. In regards to the Americanization Movement, she said, "There was ignorance in it; there was the arrogant assumption that everything American was intrinsically superior to anything foreign. There was fear in it. There were the germs of hate in it. None of these things make for anything but a sharp division, a deeper separation between peoples" (Cited in Mohl, 1982, p. 119). Bremer saw immigrants' languages and cultures as resources that would contribute both to the newcomers' success and to the richness of the nation. Her contemporary was Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology (Stocking, 1974), who used anthropology to argue for racial equality and the benefits of immigration, just as Bremer did.

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