Home / Content / Embracing Bilingualism with English in the Fine Print: Schooling Continues to Promote Monolingualism in Children of Immigrants by Yalda M. Kaveh

Embracing Bilingualism with English in the Fine Print: Schooling Continues to Promote Monolingualism in Children of Immigrants by Yalda M. Kaveh

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The United States Census Bureau (2015) estimates that about 79% of the U.S. population over the age of five speaks only English at home. The second and third generations of immigrants in the U.S. share a prevalent commonality: English language dominance, and very often English monolingualism, at the expense of loss of their heritage[1] languages (PEW Research Center, 2015). Establishing a commonly spoken standardized American English has been historically regarded as a necessary step for unifying the citizens of this country[2]. Speakers of non-English languages have been alienated and linguistically assimilated in favor of standardized English through a variety of strategies including schooling[3]. My recent study on the links between language practices in immigrant families and educational language policies at two elementary schools in the state of Massachusetts showed that schooling continually promotes English monolingualism in children of immigrants[4]. Although teachers now appreciate bilingualism and no longer encourage immigrant parents to speak English at home, their language practices clearly prioritizes English over heritage languages. These practices send strong, yet unspoken, messages that are communicated between schools and homes through children.

I conducted the study in the 2016-17 school year, which marked the 15th, and the final, year the state of Massachusetts enforced an English-only educational policy. Massachusetts is one of the three states, along with California (Proposition 227, 1998) and Arizona (Proposition 203, 2000), that approved and implemented a ballot initiative (Question 2, 2002) in early 2000s mandating that all children in public schools be taught exclusively in English, and emergent bilinguals[5] be placed in Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) settings and later transferred to mainstream English-mediated classrooms.[6] The participants for this study were four fourth grade children, four parents, and eight school staff (four classroom teachers, two ESL coordinators, and two principals) at two public elementary schools, one urban and another suburban. The families spoke Cape Verdean Creole, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Spanish as their heritage languages. Six out of the eight school staff were White. The two principals, who were both immigrants from the Caribbean, were the only educational staff of color in this study. The two ESL teachers and the two principals were bi/multilingual. Only one out of the four classroom teachers had proficiency (although limited) in a non-English language. I was interested in examining how, or if, language decisions in the families were in conversation with educational language policies at the state and school levels.

The findings showed that the classroom teachers never instructed the parents about the language they should use at home and the parents did not seek advice from the teachers about their home language use. Home language practices were regarded as a familial matter, both by the parents and the classroom teachers. Therefore, the topic was never really discussed between them. At the surface-level, the reality of language practices at homes and schools had little to do with the state English-only policy. The teachers in the study were not fully informed on the details of the state policy requirements. Additionally, they occasionally disregarded what they knew about it in favor of their students’ needs. Similarly, the parents and the children, who were the ultimate stakeholders of the state language policy, were neither consulted nor informed about the policy. Despite this surface-level disconnect between the state policy, schools, and homes, they were unified with one ultimate goal. Language beliefs of the children, the parents, and the school staff as well as language practices at homes and schools commonly prioritized English. By attending school, the children communicated these beliefs between homes and schools through their increasing preference for English and influenced language practices in both contexts. This progression of children’s language development ultimately fulfilled the goal of the state language policy, which was purportedly disregarded, as well as the societal ideologies that have historically promoted English monolingualism in this country.

Shared Belief: Embracing Bilingualism with English in the Fine Print

The findings showed that the children, the parents, and the school staff regarded bilingualism as an important skill and named cognitive, academic, social, and economic benefits for it in today’s world. The issue with this resource-based view on bilingualism is that it tokenizes heritage languages based on the values of White English monolingual society, rather than valuing benefits of children’s heritage language proficiency within the immigrant communities. Consequently, although everyone valued bilingualism as a resource, most participants ultimately prioritized English to heritage languages in the name of ensuring success for the children. The parents and the children believed that English was the language of survival here, while their heritage languages afforded them additional benefits. All the parents in this study regarded English as their children’s first language because they were born here.

Similarly, the teachers were convinced that the language guaranteeing success for their students was English because they lived in the U.S. All but one of the school staff spoke to the importance of English for bilingual children because of its dominance in the U.S. society. On the other hand, no member of the school staff regarded maintaining heritage languages, on their own, vital for functioning successfully in the personal or societal spaces in the U.S. society. For the classroom teachers, heritage languages were only deemed valuable when they supplemented strong English language proficiency: “The end result is for children to become successful and comfortable learners in English,” and “Knowing English is very important for children because they are here and English is the language we all speak” (Teacher interview transcription). Accordingly, the teachers considered it their job to focus, exclusively, on the development of English. They considered heritage language maintenance the responsibility of the parents.

Shared Practices: Heritage Languages Fading at Homes and Schools

In addition to the language beliefs favoring English, the language practices at homes and schools also showed an increasing dominance of English with schooling. While teachers incorporated emergent bilingual children’s languages when necessary and occasionally used linguistically and culturally responsive strategies to make their English-only instruction accessible, those strategies functioned as “a means to an end” (Teacher interview transcription).  Further, the strategies faded as the children became more proficient in English. As the teachers decreased their efforts to make their English-only instruction linguistically accessible, the children’s language choice also increasingly favored English, both at school and at home.

Moreover, as the children became more proficient and willing to use English at home, the parents also reexamined their practices. They did not make a constant effort to speak their heritage language and encourage their children to speak it to the extent they did before the children began schooling. This shift was more significant in families with parents who were more comfortable or willing to speak English. Yet, even in the only family who was dominant in their heritage language, both the child and the parent predicted that English would become dominant in their home as the child became more fluent in it. Strikingly, most adults in this study (parents and school staff) were fully aware of a pattern of heritage language loss in all children of immigrants, but there was no systematic action to prevent it. As their language practices show, despite valuing bilingualism, most had conformed to the idea that a transition to English monolingualism, or English dominance, was inevitable for children growing up in the U.S. and they adjusted their language practices to it over time.

Despite this overarching support for English, the participating families and school staff in this study showed great variations in their language beliefs and practices based on many contextual factors in their lives. The participants came from different racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They lived in different neighborhoods and had different life experiences, socioeconomic resources, jobs, levels of education, and bi/multilingual proficiencies. Additionally, the influence of these contextual factors was transient with the passage of time for each individual. Sociopolitical, cultural, and economic conditions of the society are not static, neither were the experiences and the viewpoints of these participants[7]. Therefore, the children, the parents, and the school staff occasionally reevaluated their language beliefs and practices as lived their lives in their immediate environments and the larger sociopolitical context. Nevertheless, those contextual variations still reflected the larger sociohistorical ideologies of the U.S. that ultimately consider English as the prerequisite for success, particularly when it comes to communities of color [8].

Based on these findings, although parents and educators’ opinions seem to have progressed from subtractive views on bilingualism, they are yet to overcome the perspective that values bilingualism with the contingency of English proficiency and ultimately gives up on heritage languages. Prioritizing English in bilingualism will further sustain the historical heritage language loss and English monolingualism patterns among the second and third generations of immigrants. It is time to progress from perceiving heritage languages as an added bonus to English toward viewing them as the birthright of children of immigrants[9], even if they are born and raised in an English-speaking country. Raising awareness and breaking from the nationalistic and raciolinguistic[10] ideologies that have historically legitimized standardized English proficiency as the ultimate goal for assimilating Indigenous peoples, people of color, and immigrants in this country requires systemic changes. Nonetheless, a vital first step is that schools and families start explicit conversations about their long-term goals for bilingual children and examine whether their current language practices match those goals. Conversations between families and schools with the purpose of bilingual and bicultural development of children can then serve as the foundation for repurposing school curricula to sustain children’s heritage languages and cultures (note the use of plural), rather than including them on the periphery and in temporary ways with the purpose of English language development.[11]

[1] I prefer “heritage language” to other commonly used terms such as “first language,” “primary language,” “mother tongue,” and “home language,” because not every non-English language spoken by bilingual children is necessarily their first language or the language that their mother passed on to them. In addition, heritage languages might not be exclusively, or at all, spoken at home. In fact, restrictive terms such as “home language” create dichotomies such as home language versus school/societal language that further alienate heritage language use to the borders of home context.

[2] Crawford, J. (1992). Language loyalties: A source book on the official English controversy.       University of Chicago Press.

[3] Wiley, T. G., & García, O. (2016). Language Policy and Planning in Language Education:        Legacies, Consequences, and Possibilities. The Modern Language Journal, 100(S1), 48-           63.

[4] Kaveh, Y. M. (2018). Unspoken Dialogues between Educational and Family Language Policies: Children as Language Policy Agents (Doctoral dissertation, Boston College).   

[5] Emergent bilingual here refers to children who speak a non-English heritage language while developing English. I prefer this term to other commonly used terms in policy texts and the literature on bilingualism such as limited English proficient (LEP), English language learner (ELL), and English learner (EL) because those terms solely legitimize English and do not value, or even acknowledge, bilingual children’s heritage languages.

[6] California and Massachusetts have taken initial steps to retract their restrictive English-only laws. California proposed a new initiative, proposition 58 (the LEARN Initiative), which was approved with 72.58% Yeses on November 8th, 2016. Massachusetts officially legislated the LOOK bill (Language Opportunities for Our Kids) on November 22, 2017, which will provide flexibility to school districts to offer bilingual programs without the waiver mandated by the current law. This will allow the schools and parents to choose the language program that best serve the needs of the children. However, the schools reserve the right to keep the former English-only model as they see fit for their student population.

[7] For further details on the participating families and the schools please refer to the original study:

Kaveh, Y. M. (2018). Unspoken Dialogues between Educational and Family Language Policies: Children as Language Policy Agents (Doctoral dissertation, Boston College).

[8] Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review85(2), 149-171.

[9] Ruiz, R. (1984). Orientations in language planning. NABE journal8(2), 15-34.

[10] “Raciolinguistic ideologies” (Flores & Rosa, 2015) position speakers of languages based on how they are heard by the White listening subjects, rather than what they actually do with language.

[11] To read more on “culturally sustaining pedagogies”, please refer to:

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review84(1), 85-100.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2017). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World (Language and Literacy Series). New York: Teachers College Press.


Author biography 

Dr. Yalda M. Kaveh is an assistant professor in Bilingual Education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Her research mainly focuses on the intersection of linguistic and cultural development of bilingual children, family life, schooling, and language policy (Kaveh, 2017, 2018). She received her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in Language, Literacy, and Culture from Boston College. Her dissertation was titled “Unspoken Dialogues Between Educational and Family Language Policies: Children as Language Policy Agents” and examined the links between family language policies and educational language policies at two public elementary schools in the state of Massachusetts. During her doctoral studies, Dr. Kaveh served on multiple research projects, working to develop curricula and instructional tools to help teachers support bi/multilingual students to draw on all their linguistic resources for literacy development. Her involvement has resulted in multiple publications focusing on the use of metalinguistic methods to teach text structure and language use in literacy instruction for bi/multilingual learners (Brisk & Kaveh, in press, forthcoming; Brisk, Kaveh, Scialoia, & Timothy, 2016). Before moving to the U.S. for her graduate studies, Dr. Kaveh taught English and Persian for several years in her home country, Iran.