Politics of Language: The California Bilingual Education Initiative

By Holstein, Amara | Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Politics of Language: The California Bilingual Education Initiative


Holstein, Amara, Ethnic Studies Review


This essay examines issues of power and multiculturalism in relation to the education of children through debate over monolingual versus bilingual education and how language is a source of power.

The initiative on bilingual education which passed in the 1998 summer election in California was touted by its detractors as the next anti-immigration initiative. The initiative called for an end to bilingual education, advocating instead to have one year of "sheltered immersion" in English for students who do not speak English. Under this initiative almost all children will be taught in English only unless requested otherwise by the parents of the child, and funds will be provided to parents who agree to tutor their children in the family's native language. Said by many to be another immigrant-hating piece of legislation, its supporters and opponents were expected to fall along similar lines to previous such legislation. As a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said, "This is the third in a chain of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino proposals" (Streisand 36).

The debates surrounding this initiative explicitly concerned bilingual education's efficacy and future worth. Educators and teachers came out strongly against this initiative for the most part, saying that it was a political move on the part of its main proponent and creator, Mr. Ron Unz. He has been characterized in all reports as a "wealthy businessman" who some said was using the issue of bilingual education to his own ends. Educators argued for the most part that bilingual education does work, and that it is, in fact, the best way for children to learn English and other subjects when English is not their first language. They see bilingual education as a means to keep the native language intact and to further the education of both English and the native language. To its opponents, then, the initiative was a racist attack against minorities and another attempt to further place these children in a disadvantaged position.

In these debates, however, the proponents of the initiative did not fall so clearly into the lines that the rhetoric assumed, and the issues surrounding this debate have not fallen into the expected pattern. People from different backgrounds who felt strongly about this issue had unexpected rections. Rather than most immigrants opposing the legislation, the situation was more complex than it initially appeared. With the exception of the proponents who explicitly wished to curb immigration and end multiculturalism, most of the proponents of this initiative were the immigrants themselves. These people did not deny that their children should keep their native language, and in fact many stated their desire that their children keep learning about their native culture and language. However, the arguments here suggested that the place of this cultural learning is in the home, not the school, and the school should be teaching their children English as the first priority.

This remains a debate more about power and who holds it and how language is a source of power. The school is a site around which these arguments take place, yet they go far beyond that of bilingual education. The parents see English as a form of power and wish to attain that power. The educators recognize this fact but want there to be other languages which are as powerful as English in the U.S. and see an end to bilingual education as an end to the fight for minority empowerment without assimilating into Anglo culture.

Background and Methods

Because of the current debates centered around this issue and in light of the current climate after recent anti-immigrant initiatives it is necessary to further investigate the rhetoric behind this issue on both sides. The idea that immigrants voted for such a proposition seemed counter-intuitive since the program was ostensibly created for the benefit of immigrants. Thus to say that all supporters of the initiative were racists seemed too simplistic. …

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