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Using English to Oppress

English-language policies in US schools are both overtly and covertly racist and discriminatory.

(Image: Learning English via Shutterstock)

The United States has a rich, linguistic diversity, but far too often the English language is being used as a weapon to hold back poor, minority students.

Throughout US history, immigrants have been forced to assimilate and Americanize. Racist education policies, such as English-only instruction and supposedly helpful policies, such as bilingual instruction and English as a Second Language support, frame students’ native languages as deficient, a disability to be overcome.

Without a critical examination, even these positive structures can be damaging. Throughout the history of education in the United States, how to teach non-English-speakers has stirred debate over how much, what kind of and whether any support should be provided. Practices have ranged from literally beating the native language out of students, as in the case of boarding schools for American Indians and the so-called Mexican schools in the Southwest, to pushing for fully bilingual school, which if not implemented properly can lead to de facto linguistic segregation.

Donaldo Macedo described US language education policies as a form of colonialism, wherein white English speakers look to dominate the way students speak. This colonialism has ingrained itself so deeply into schools that even attempts at improving education quality for English-learning students still measure success as how well the students are able to integrate themselves linguistically into the school.

English-only policies often come shrouded in good intentions. While there is no denial many stem from racism, there is a large contingent of educators who believes learning English is the way to become free from oppression and poverty. Regardless of the intent, these policies are inherently racist and damaging to bilingual populations.

Opponents of bilingual education often present their arguments in an academic sense. They point to the numerous failures of students in bilingual programs, most notably in urban schools, without using the entire school as context. Many of these schools with struggling bilingual programs are in over-crowded, high-poverty school districts with problems facing the entire student population, not just bilinguals.

Educators and policy makers must re-examine how they view and teach linguistic-minority students. We need to recognize and celebrate linguistic diversity and overcome not only the overt xenophobic policies, but also the hidden curriculum that many educators simply do not or refuse to see. Even the terms used to describe students can be oppressive.

Labeling students as “English Language Learners” or “Limited English Proficient” de-humanizes the student and creates a mass of students whose only identifier is the need to learn English. Education policy should reflect the need for a linguistically relevant curriculum that removes the current colonialist ideology. Students should be allowed to develop as bilinguals, not just English speakers.

Bell hooks once wrote, “Among educators, there has to be an acknowledgement that any effort to transform institutions so that they reflect a multicultural standpoint must take into considerations the fears teachers have when asked to shift their paradigms.” It would be naïve to believe that teachers alone can change the power dynamic in US education.

It would also be naïve to think the US Department of Education has any interest in leading the way in changing schools’ ingrained ideology. However, true efforts can be made at the district, and in some cases, state levels. Districts and states can still set their own curriculum, providing the opportunity to re-examine the power structures, language and viewpoint of educational materials made available in their schools.

A grass-roots movement with representatives from the schools and the community with clear, concise goals and strong emphasis on equity, social justice and pedagogy should, ideally, be mobilized. Collaboration is pivotal, as only the community can properly delineate its needs, while the expertise of teachers is the most effective way to ensure proper implementation of the community-based, culturally relevant pedagogy. It must be recognized that language learning does not occur in the classroom only and requires the combined efforts of schools and families.

Only with the combined efforts of all concerned parties can there be a genuine effort to undermine the dominant ideology and usher in an education system that is concerned with all viewpoints and relevant to all students – regardless of the language they speak.

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