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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue amad1enned'etudesamfricmnes Volume 26, Number 1, Wmrer 1996, pp. 31-47 Language, Culture, and the Courts: Bilingual Education in the United States Teresa Scassa 31 In this article, I explore the relationship between language and national identity using U.S. bilingual education law and policy as a case study. 1 Language legislation and policy play a dual role: at a functional level, they mediate the relationships between languages in a multicultural society, yet at the same time their mediation serves to reflect prevailing attitudes towards both dominant and nondominant languages. This paper is not meant to be a critique of bilingual education with a view to reforming it, nor is it meant to assess the merits of such programs from a pedagogical point of view. Rather, my focus will be on particular points of contact between bilingual education and legal institutions in order to explore some of the ways in which both individual and national identity are shaped by legal discourse. 2 My particular focus will be on judicial opinions as legal and interpretive texts. Bilingual education has been a source of significant public debate in the United States. Arguments for and against bilingual education articulate broader attitudes about issues of national identity, citizenship, the place or role of ethnic communities in the United States, and the values of diversity or assimilation. The public discourse about citizenship and national identity is reflected in judicial texts while, at the same time, the analytical and structural framework of legal institutions tends to condition the public discourse around these issues. While neither legal institutions nor public opinion determine one another, they arc engaged in a reciprocal con- 32 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue amadienne d'etudes amhicaines versation. In this article, I will examine the range of public debate around bilingual education and measure that range against judicial interpretations of the scope and meaning of bilingual education. BilingualEducation There is no real consensus about the aims or goals of American bilingual education, and no two programs are necessarily identical or even alike. Bilingual education generally requires that parts of the mainstream curriculum of elementary school students, who do not have English as their mother tongue, be provided in their mother tongue, with increasing amounts of English language instruction being added as the students progress in their learning. The idea is that the children who are taught in this manner will not fall behind in the mainstream courses, such as math or science, since they will be able to begin to learn them in their mother tongue until such time as their English language skills are sufficient to continue to learn them in English (Epstein 1980, 491). While this strategy may be the basic purpose ot bilingual education, the theory, underlying goals, and actual practice may vary significantly. There are a range of different views on the nature and purpose of bilingual education. Some educators see bilingual education simply as a means to allow students to acquire English language skills without falling behind in other subjects. For these educators, the primary purpose of bilingual education is to bring students "up to speed" with the English mother tongue students , and the emphasis is on facilitating academic achievement within the mainstream curriculum (Piatt 1990, 47; Epstein 1980, n. 4, 491). 3 Such programs are often called "transitional" bilingual education. It is no coincidence that transitional bilingual education is favoured by educators who see assimilation as a desirable, or at the very least, as an unproblematic outcome. Transitional bilingual education has been criticized by other educators who see it as being overly concerned with quickly developing the English language skills of students at the expense of their learning needs or their own language development (Cardenas 1992, 345-46). In contrast, these educators emphasize the importance to a student's educational performance of being TeiesaSazssa I 33 secure in their mother tongue, and suggest that feelings of shame and alienation from their mother tongue are themselves significant barriers to learning. 4 These theorists may also emphasize the importance of mother tongue retention in maintaining the integrity of ethnic minority communities and providing a hedge against total assimilation (Epstein 1980, n. 4...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 31-47
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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