Early Years: Tolerance and Repression

In this excerpt from Foundations for Multlingualism in Education: from Principles to Practice (Caslon, 2011), Ester de Jong shares an overview of the history of language policy in the United States. "Early Years: Tolerance and Repression" explores the wide ranging language policies in the 18th and 19th century, from colonial acceptance and encouragement of multilingualism to later repression of the languages of Native Americans and West African slaves.

For information about the language policies that followed this period, take a look at the following other excerpts from de Jong:

The years between the late 18th and early 19th century are often overlooked in overviews of educational policy for language minority students in the United States, which typically start after World War II. But this period is important because it illustrates a mostly pluralist stance toward immigrant languages at the beginnings of nation building. At the same time an overt assimilationist approach to Native American language speakers and the native languages of slaves also existed. These early years reflect a multiplicity and synchronicity of discourses.

Linguistic diversity before independence

Multilingualism was long the norm on the North American continent, where for centuries Native Americans lived throughout the area of what is now the United States and spoke about 300 different languages (Brisk, 1981, 2006; Conklin & Lourie, 1983; Kloss, 1998). The European colonists who settled colonial America spoke Spanish, French, German, Dutch, and English, as well as several other northern European languages:

  • Spanish: The first European language to take hold was Spanish in the early 1500s as Puerto Rico, Florida, and then California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas were settled by Spanish-speaking missionaries and explorers.
  • German: The German-speaking population was the second largest ethnic group to arrive. Germans fleeing religious repression and war went to Pennsylvania and were the dominant ethnic group in an area that included Maryland and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. By the time of the Revolution, Germans constituted one-third of Pennsylvania's population.

American colonies "abounded with speakers of languages other than English" (Read, 1937, p. 99). By the time New Netherlands ceded to British in 1664, at least 18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island, not counting Indian languages (Crawford, 1999a). Even English and French had multiple varieties:

  • English: The English spoken was not one variety and included East Anglican English (spoken by indentured servants) and an English variety spoken by Scotch-Irish Ulsterites.
  • French: By 1800, three varieties of French were spoken in Louisiana: the standard French of the original French settlers, Arcadian French (also referred to as Cajun), spoken by those who had been expelled from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War between 1755 and 1763, and the Louisiana French Creole of West African slaves (Conklin & Lourie, 1983; Earle, 1992).

Like the ruling bodies of many other nations before them, the Continental Congress took up the question of an official language at the time of independence. While the various proposals were considered, Congress ultimately decided against declaring an official language and chose "a policy not to have a policy" (Heath, 1977, p. 10). As Heath explains, this decision was informed by several rationales.

  • The nation's founders realized, first, the divisive impact that such a monolingual policy could have. They recognized the critical roles that multiple languages were playing at the time in political and social life. By declaring English as the official language they could potentially alienate powerful ethnic groups that were needed to support, unify, and legitimize the new nation.
  • Second, language use was considered a matter of individual choice and not to be regulated by the government. The idea of a supranational language was too closely associated with the monarchical systems (such as those in Spain and France) that many were trying to escape.
  • Finally, the Founding Fathers were confident that assimilation into greatness of American culture would naturally occur and needed no coercion through social engineering. The majority of individuals living in the 13 colonies spoke some variety of English and it was taken for granted that English would become the natural choice of communication as the nation expanded.

For pragmatic and political reasons, then, Congress decided not to have a formal and explicit language policy. The Founding Fathers were correct in predicting that English would become the language of public life. Today English is spoken by the great majority of the people. According to the 2000 census, only 6% of the total U.S. population reports not speaking English at all.

Supporting multilingualism

In the early years of U.S. nation building, speaking English was not a precondition to being or becoming a citizen or for being considered American; rather, subscribing to the ideals and principles of the "New Nation" (liberty, equality, democracy) defined the American identity. Recall that the census did not include any questions about language during this period. The Founding Fathers and other leaders valued multilingualism for individuals and national service because it provided access to knowledge and learning and advocated for the recognition of local, regional, or special interests:

  • Laws: Federal and state declarations and laws were printed in German and French. Non-English languages were officially recognized along with English in state constitutions as new states joined the union, including: Louisiana (French), California and New Mexico (Spanish), and Pennsylvania (German).
  • Daily life: The use of the ethnic language was an expected and natural part of the acculturation process of immigrants. The colonial and early immigrant languages were used regularly, along with English, to conduct government business. They were used in church services and local media, including books, pamphlets, and, in particular, newspapers. Cultural events (theater, choral concerts, celebrations) also continued to be conducted in non-English languages for many years (Kloss, 1998).
  • Schools: Public, private, and parochial schools were established that used the native language out of a desire to maintain the native language and culture as well as out of necessity in the absence of English-speaking teachers (Crawford, 1999a, 2000). Andersson (1971) credits German-English bilingual schools in Cincinnati, Ohio with the origin of bilingual schooling in the United States in 1840. To strengthen public education and attract children from the German community, the State of Ohio passed a law that required the provision of German or German and English schools if parents requested it. By 1900, at least 600,000 children in the United States were receiving part or all of their instruction in German, about 4% of the elementary school population. Cincinnati public schools continued to enroll over 15,000 students annually in their bilingual schools until the end of World War I (Schlossman, 1983a). During this same period, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish were used in public schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Washington. Dutch was used in Michigan, and Polish and Italian were used in Wisconsin.
  • Bilingualism in New Mexico: Spanish was used extensively in the Southwest, in particular in New Mexico (Ovando, Collier, & Combs, 2003). New Mexico had previously been Spanish, then Mexican territory and bilingual practices had been typical until the 1880s. Anglo merchants learned Spanish, and New Mexico was seen as a bilingual society. A shift in numbers and the power structure changed this favorable attitude toward bilingualism (and the use of Spanish). English became the mandated language, although bilingual practices (e.g., the use of bilingual textbooks) continued (Getz, 1997). Today, New Mexico is one of four states that have endorsed resolutions in favor of bilingualism. At the time of the outbreak of World War I, about a dozen states allowed bilingual schooling for their citizens.

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Repression for Native Americans & Slaves

West African Slaves

While a pluralistic discourse characterized the treatment of the colonial and the first immigrant languages during the early years of the republic, policies toward Native Americans and West African slaves were openly repressive and characterized by coercive assimilation during this same period (Wiley, 2000). West African slaves were taken from Senegambia, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Biafra, and Southeast Asia to work on the southern plantations (Fogleman, 1998), though some worked as slaves (servants) in the Northeast as well (Berlin, 1980).

In the Chesapeake area (Virginia), slaves were grouped into multilingual units and separated from their families and other group members who could speak their language. Unable to use their native languages, slaves throughout the south developed a language to communicate among themselves that developed into what we now refer to as Black English or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which still has traces of African languages.

Native Americans

Native languages and assimilation

U.S. policy on Native American languages is perhaps historically the most coercive of all language policies in the country.

  • Religious instruction: Although initial contact with Christian missionaries led to the development of alphabets for several Native American languages, since cultural and linguistic assimilation was their goal, missionaries used the students' native languages to provide religious instruction and found the method to be highly effective. Mr. Janney, a Quaker, wrote in a report to the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1871, "Theirs is a phonetic language, and a smart boy will learn it in three or four weeks; and we have found it far better to instruct them in their own language, and also to teach them English as fast as we can" (Annual Report, 1971, p. 168; cited in Reyhner, 1993, p. 38).
  • Schooling: The use of the native language for schooling also appeared in a congressional treaty with the Cherokee nation in 1828, which states, "It is further agreed by the U.S. to pay $1,000… towards the purchase of a Printing Press and Types to aid the Cherokees in the progress of education, and to benefit and enlighten them as people, in their own language" (Castellanos, 1983, p. 17). The Cherokees would operate 21 schools and two academies in Cherokee and English. The existence of a written language (the Sequoya syllabary) played a crucial role in the development of bilingual newspapers, pamphlets, and the like. By 1852 the Cherokee had higher literacy levels in English than the white population in either Texas or Arkansas. Unfortunately, subsequent English-only policies had a devastating impact on literacy levels, and by 1967, the literacy rate had dropped to 40% (Dicker, 2003).

Linguistic and cultural eradication

This assimilationist bilingual approach was short-lived. Starting in the 1860s, the federal government began its systematic eradication of the languages and cultures of the Native Americans. The 1868 Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners identifies language and cultural differences as the problem for the Native American Indian: "In the difference of language to-day lies two-thirds of our trouble… Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted" (quoted in Reyhner, 1993, p. 39).

Based on a mission to "save the savage," this assimilationist discourse dominated schooling for Native Americans well into the 1930s and was combined with territorial policies that systematically diminished the land owned by Native American tribes (Adams, 1995).Native Americans were forcefully moved onto reservations, and children were taken away to off-reservation boarding schools, often for several years, where English-only policies were strictly implemented. As the commissioner of Indian affairs, John Atkins, stated in 1887: "The instruction of the Indians in the vernacular is not only of no use to them, but is detrimental to the cause of their education and civilization, and no school will be permitted on the reservation in which the English language is not exclusively taught" (quoted in Reyhner, 1993, p. 40).

Children were physically punished for speaking their native language and torn from their cultural roots, in terms of values and physical attributes such as clothing and hair style (Adams, 1995). The curriculum focused on religious instruction with limited opportunities for developing practical skills. There was no expectation that Native Americans would rise to positions of leadership in the new nation.

Modern marginalization

War, disease, coercive assimilation, and forced migration onto reservations reduced the number of Native Americans and marginalized them as a group in the United States. This marginalization has led to the disappearance of many indigenous languages and cultures to the extent that there are only about 150 Native American languages recognized today (Estes, 1999). In California alone, approximately 150 indigenous languages were spoken at the time the Europeans arrived. Only 50 are still spoken today, mostly only by elders; and virtually 100% of California's indigenous languages are no longer learned by children (Hinton, 1994).

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Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


de Jong, Ester. (2011). Foundations for Multilingualism in Education. Excerpt from Chapter 5, "Language Policy in the United States." (pp. 126-138). ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


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This is an invaluable,well-documented and organized resource. Muchas Gracias!

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