Jing Tan, Miami University/ Under the Mask of Bilingual Education: Cultural Capital
In 1839, Ohio was the nation’s first state to formally empower bilingual education law to meet German immigrants’ educational needs at school. In 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was the first federal legislation to speak for bilingual students in the U.S. to have equal access to education. It seems like we have made progress in creating fair education for English as a second language speakers. However, it is important for us to look back at the impact of bilingual education policies in the past 180 years to reevaluate the policies and revise them to fit with current generation students. Are our students really bilingual? Is the policy constructing or assimilating diversity? I believe that bilingual policies have assimilated 1.5 generation students instead of letting them keep their identity and culture, which has silenced voices in our classrooms.
The first American bilingual student I met was through a Fulbright program in China in 2009. He is an American born Chinese and was trying to learn Chinese because he wanted to be able to talk with his mother. In his bilingual education experience, he lost his first language while learning English. He mentioned that he grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and that his mother only speaks Chinese. They have a small family business in Chinatown, and his mother runs it with no need to speak English. It was different for him. When he was sent to public school, he had to learn English to make friends and get educated. He still remembers the time when he could communicate with his mother when he was young by growing up speaking Chinese, but he knew that he lost the language heritage along with his U.S. schooling experience. He is trying to pick up something important for him through learning Chinese.
On the one hand, I was amazed by his mother’s resistance of U.S.-dominant culture. I wonder how long Chinatown can still be such a safe environment for Chinese culture in America? On the other hand, I had sympathy for this 1.5 generation student. I became curious about what happened during his school experience. Language is an important tool for him to build a closer connection with his mother. It is not right for a school to take away a student’s opportunity to talk with his/her mother. There is something definitely missing in the American school system, or I shall say in the bilingual education policies that are meant to help.
After a few years, I came to the U.S. for my graduate education in TESOL and SAHE. I have met some people who live in German towns in Ohio. It is amazing that more than 25 percent of the population in Ohio are German. This large population of German people probably could explain why Ohio was the first state empowered bilingual education in German-English. However, there are only 9 registered dual language schools in Ohio and none of them are German-English bilingual schools. I have found that there is one German-English bilingual program in Cincinnati, Fairview-Clifton German Language School. Interestingly, all the first/second generation children of German immigrants in Ohio I have met so far could not speak German. Only a few of them are trying to learn the language and culture in college education and only because their programs require a language. I wonder how many people in German towns can speak German and what happened to the German culture and identity?
The purpose of bilingual education is to respect humanity and bring in inclusion and diversity to classrooms. However, under the mask of bilingual education, our people are losing languages, cultures, and identities. Students are losing the opportunity to talk with their family members in their languages. Students are losing who they are and where they come from.
Students are losing voices in classrooms and are under pressure to assimilate; there are no alternatives for students who speak a different language besides being Americanized. It is time to question what policy really brings to us and uncover the mask of cultural capital through linguistic capital from the dominant power. It is time to achieve democratic education by better implementing bilingual education policy that will help our students to keep their identity and culture. This is the right thing to do because every student deserves to be who they really are.
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Largest Ethnic Groups in Ohio. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2019, from
McCabe, M. (2016). First in the Midwest: Almost 180 years ago, Ohio opened the door to bilingual education. Retrieved from https://www.csgmidwest.org/policyresearch/0416- FW-bilingual-education.aspx
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.