Bilingual Education in USA: Reviving an American Tradition

In the United States, bilingual education continues to provoke fierce debate. It seems that nearly everyone—from educators to policymakers to parents with school-age children to those without children—has a strong opinion on whether children with little fluency in English should be taught academic content in their home language as they learn English. 

Many people, however, regardless of whether they support this approach, would be surprised to learn of our country’s legacy when it comes to bilingual education.

Bilingual education has been a part of the American educational landscape since before the United States was forged from a collection of fractious colonies. According to one report, the first instance of bilingual education in the future United States occurred with 17th-century Polish settlers in the first permanent English settlement of Virginia.1 At the time, the colony was in severe need of the Poles’ manufacturing skills for shipbuilding and glassworks. So the colonial government extended to Poles “the rights of Englishmen,” permitting them to establish the first known bilingual schools on the American continent.

By Claude Goldenberg, Kirstin Wagner

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