Well-funded lobbyists in the U.S. take resources away from bi/multilingual education

In this post, I summarize a long book chapter by Wiley (2022), on a 60-year-long political campaign against bi/multilingual education in the U.S. that has a lot of money behind it. Prof. Wiley was President of the Center for Applied Linguistics from 2010-2017. He traces the anti-immigration sentiment from the immigration policy of the 1960s to the Trump administration and its aftermath… concluding that now, more than ever, academics need to fight for students’ RIGHTS to their LANGUAGES. This blog post, or the original chapter, would be good to assign as a course reading for pre- and in-service teachers, to contextualize what Wiley calls “the retreat into academia” in the face of this ongoing political onslaught.

Wiley, T. (2022). The grand erasure: Whatever happened to bilingual education and language minority rights? In J. MacSwan (Ed.), Multilingual perspectives on translanguaging. Multilingual Matters.

Wiley begins by reviewing the work of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and colleagues (e.g., Skutnabb-Kangas, 1988; Skutnabb-Kangas et al. 1995) who coined the term “linguicism” to refer to language discrimination that creates unequal power relations and resource distribution between groups based on language. Earlier, Leibowitz (1969, 1974/2016) concluded that language discrimination is often a surrogate for other forms of discrimination in educational, economic, political and social domains—for example, to get away with racial or religious discrimination, policymakers make discriminatory language policies rather than color-based or religion-based discriminatory laws.

In the U.S., linguicism affected “undesirable” white immigrants in the early 20th century, such as Germans and Italians during WWI, Spaniards, Jews, Irish, and Scots (p. 255). [Blogger’s note: This is why the acronym WASP came to signify the American “mainstream”—White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (i.e., not just White but of British origin, and not Catholic Irish or Scots).] Wiley writes: “Ethnicized Europeans were subjected to violence and publicly ostracized for speaking languages other than English” (p. 255; see also Wiley, 1998, 2005). Prior to that, “there was also substantial precedent for language repression associated with the enslavement of Africans beginning in the colonial period and repression of the use of Native American languages, especially starting with the boarding school movement that began in the late 19th century” (Wiley, 2002, p. 255).

  • During the 1960s, Cuban immigrants in Miami demonstrated effective bilingual immersion education at the Coral Way school (Pellerano & Fradd, 1998, as cited in Wiley, 2022, p. 255). While the program is still going, and bilingual programs have proliferated from the 1960s until now, federal funding for bilingual education has received cutbacks over the same period of time. Also, the ability of a public school district to fund its ELL/bilingual programs depends on its property taxes—so the poorer a district, the less able it is to fund a well-resourced program.
  • The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 mandated that schools provide bilingual education programs. Local school districts were encouraged to implement native language support, but they were slow to respond due to lack of resources and training. (Wiley, 2022, p. 256)
  • In 1974, the US High Court heard the Lau v. Nichols case (414 US 563, 1974). The outcome was that the San Francisco District was ordered to provide some form of trained ESL instruction to Chinese-speaking children in order to make the curriculum comprehensible, after the school district “took the astounding position that it was not within its purview to teach students English if they did not already know it” (Wiley, 2022, p. 256). At the same time, the court did not rule exactly what the school district should do: bilingual education, what kind of ESL support, exactly how to implement these things, etc.

Apart from these legal battles and funding crises, bi/multilingual education in the U.S. faces anti-immigrant societal backlash. Wiley writes: “The 1965 act removed the racially based quota system that had been in place since 1924. Gradually, an increasing backlash developed against immigrant minorities” (p. 257). Because language discrimination can be a proxy for racial discrimination, complaining about people’s lack of English proficiency can be a proxy for being hostile to them based on ethnicity or race:

Thus, in the early 1980s, language and bilingual education became soft targets for populist-oriented pundits and politicians to express concerns about the growing number of immigrants and their children with ‘limited’ English proficiency. In 1981, S.I. Hayakawa (1906–1992) – himself a Canadian immigrant of Japanese ancestry – a semanticist, former president of San Francisco State University, and Republican senator from California, proposed a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States. (p. 258)

One of the most grotesque aspects of this legislation was that it was sold to the public on positive terms so that people who would normally be shocked would think it was a good thing. One example is Arizona’s “English for the Children,” which restricted bilingual education, particularly in Spanish (p. 259). No one—and particularly not students’ families—would object to English learning. But that wasn’t actually what the policies were about.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wiley’s chapter was how he highlighted that anti-bilingual education laws have well funded lobbyists backed by philanthropy. Dr. John Tanton was backed by an American socialite with a bottomless pool of money, Cordelia Scaife May (1928–2005) of the Mellon clan. From Wiley’s chapter, I feel Ms. May was probably not a “bad” person, but was so disconnected from the world, due to her money, that she believed a lot of bizarre things from the limited number of outside world sources she had… which led some of her own relatives to distance themselves from her. In the end, her money did a lot of damage. Like many normal people, she was concerned about overpopulation and environmental devastation, but was convinced these were due to social welfare: “‘She compared medical sciences’ success in reducing infant mortality rates to veterinarians prolonging the lives “of useless cattle”’ (Kulish & McIntire, 2019: 15, as cited in Wiley, 2022, p. 262).

Effectively, Tanton was able to use May’s money to restrict bi/multilingual and ESL education up to the present day. One of their key strategies was to fund a gazillion different support groups that all looked independent by name, but were all ultimately funded or supported by them.

With Mrs May’s support, Tanton ‘continued founding or fostering new groups’ (2019: 15). Tanton’s approach was also strategic because ‘“it allowed his creations to meet the I.R.S.’s so-called public support test,” which prevents charities from relying too heavily on a single donor’ (2019: 15). Moreover, the large number of groups created by Tanton with Mrs May’s support over four decades ‘played an important role in the success of the anti-immigration movement by giving the appearance of broad-based support’ through sending their representatives ‘to appear before Congress, talk to journalists, and provide briefs in lawsuits without disclosing their common origins and funding’ (2019: 15). The smokescreen of broad-based support extended to promoting ballot measures such as Arizona’s controversial 1988 ballot measure that required all business to be conducted in English, which was subsequently rejected by the US Supreme Court. When Tanton ‘had trouble getting grass-roots support … he turned to Mrs May to pay canvassers’ (2019: 15). … Kulish and McIntire (2019) conclude that ‘her money and activism seeded the political landscape for Mr Trump’s nativist policies. (p. 264)

Wiley provides interesting figures in his chapter, such as the following:

This campaign has had detrimental effects on bi/multilingualism in U.S. society. Even students who speak another language at home (i.e., heritage speakers) aren’t very literate in these languages, or don’t know them for academic and professional domains. They have often have to learn these skills alongside foreign language learners. Wiley writes: “relatively few U.S. students receive long-term, articulated instruction in any foreign language in their pre-K-12 education. At the university level, the number of students graduating with professional-level bilingual skills is minimal” (Brecht & Ingold, 2002, as cited in Wiley, p. 268).

As the above table suggests, 3 out of 20 Spanish speakers can become proficient in Spanish under such conditions. For other heritage languages, it is almost no one. Thus, even when schools are sincerely looking for bilingual teachers, they would be hard-pressed to find people with enough bilingual proficiency from the homegrown U.S. population. Consider how almost all children with heritage languages who were immersed in English in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s due to the political climate are now largely English-dominant. What do you think their own kids’ language profiles will be? This is the result of “the legacies of Americanization, English-only, and language restriction against federal bilingual education, as well as the attempts to eradicate Native American languages during the boarding school era, particularly between 1879 and 1928” (p. 273). Moreover, families living in poverty may have more pressing concerns than linguistic and cultural battles. It takes a well-mobilized, reasonably well-resourced community to fight for language rights, land autonomy and/or socioeconomic betterment.

Given this dire situation, Wiley moves on to the section of his chapter titled..,

Defending Language Rights: A Retreat Inside the Academy

Wiley is critical of the position of Makoni and Pennycook (2007) and translanguaging scholarship that has questioned the reality of named languages. He realizes that these scholars

have been interested in purging the vestiges of Eurocentrism and colonialism in the field of language policy and planning, as well as shifting the theoretical and empirical focuses of inquiry. Some of these critiques have been useful in providing historical analyses of traditional language planning as activities associated with, or in the service of, nation-building, colonialism, proselytizing or other activities designed to engineer linguistic change, or conformity in the interest of the state, religion, colonial power or commercial interests (see, for example, Mignolo, 2003, 2011) as well as recent literature embracing a sociolinguistics of the global south. (p. 274)

On the other hand, Wiley reminds us that “language strategists” (Weinstein, 1979, 1983) are always up to a range of things, some good, some bad:

Wiley instead agrees with May, who writes:

Indigenous peoples are once again denied access to any of their proximal language varieties in the education of their children. Instead, the de facto context of majoritarian language varieties as the only languages of instruction is simply reinforced. (May, 2018, p. 70)

Finally, Wiley notes that legally, you cannot fight linguicism in society unless you use the construct of named languages. This has to do with (1) the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of language(s); and (2) the right to use one’s language in the activities of communal life. In a legal argument, would you say you are discriminated against for translanguaging, for using your whole language repertoire, or using resources from the named language Spanish? Or simply that you are discriminated against for speaking your home language, SPANISH, at work or school? Or denied interpretation in SPANISH (even if you translanguage in that conversation, surely what you are advocating for is that the interpreter needs to know Spanish, not just English)?

According to Wiley, “linguistic arguments in favor of discrete languages provide a significant basis for the protection of language practices” (p. 283). He cites Davis and Dubinsky (2018):

the inability to partake of all the benefits of a society and be assured of safeguards set out in human rights documents due to an insufficient level of proficiency in the dominant language becomes a rights issue if no accommodation is made. Given the fact that it is a rights issue helps to explain why language has been used to deny access in some causes and to empower others. (Davis & Dubinsky, 2018, p. 171)

He also cites MacSwan (2020), who says that

Without a concept of AAE and Chicano English as discrete language varieties, it would be impossible to argue cases of discrimination in housing or in other matters. No law prevents discrimination based on a personal reaction to a voice, unless the voice is a proxy for race or other protected categories. Taken seriously, the idea that discrete speech communities do not exist in this sense prevents us from making a case for the civil rights of speakers who are members of stigmatized speech communities. (MacSwan, 2020, p. 328)

This has been shown in important legal victories for linguistically minoritized children, such as the Lau v. Nichols case in 1974 (see above) and the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children et al. v. Ann Arbor School District (1979) case, which allowed use of African-American English as an accommodation when learning white English… and is not to be stretched to necessarily mean promoting white English over African-American English.

Wiley concludes by asking: Are the notions of languages and rights-based discourses just “relics of the Enlightenment” (p. 285)? The Enlightenment was originally about human rights. In the Americas, they didn’t extend to women and slaves; in France, they were twisted during the Terror to execute people left and right. But what matters, always, are INTENTIONS. Why are you bringing up or marshaling a discourse, for what purposes? At present, “many nation-states are reverting to populism and flirtations with neofascism. … Hopefully, all of us who are advocates for social justice can remain united in our defense of rights to linguistic and racial equality in education” (Wiley, 2022, p. 285).


Davis, W. D., & Dubinsky, S. (2018). Language conflict and language rights: Ethnolinguistic perspectives on human conflict. Cambridge University Press.

Kulish, N., & McIntire, M. (August 15, 2019). An heiress intent on closing America’s doors. The New York Times (Part A, pp. 1, 14–15).

Leibowitz, A. H. (1969). English literacy: Legal sanction for discrimination. Notre Dame Lawyer, 2(1), 7–66.

Leibowitz, A. H. (1974/2016). Language as a means of social control. In T. Ricento (Ed.) Language policy and planning (pp. 221–257). Routledge.

Makoni, S. and Pennycook, A. (2007). Disinventing and reconstituting language. Multilingual Matters.

May, S. (2018). Unanswered questions: Addressing the inequalities of majoritarian language policies. In L. Lim, C. Stroud, & L. Wee (Eds.), The multilingual citizen: Towards a politics of language for agency and change (pp. 65–72). Multilingual Matters.

Mignolo, W. (2003). The darker side of the Renaissance: Literacy, territoriality, & colonization (2nd ed.). University of Michigan Press.

Mignolo, W. (2011). The darker side of Western modernity: Global futures, decolonial options (Latin America otherwise). Duke University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2006). Postmodernism in language policy. In T. Ricento (Ed.), An introduction to language policy: Theory and practice (pp. 60–76). Blackwell.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1988). Multilingualism and the education of minority children. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas and J. Cummins (Eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle (pp. 9–44). Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Rannut, M. (1995). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. Mouton de Gruyter.

Weinstein, B. (1983). The civic tongue: Political consequences of language choices. Longman.

Wiley, T. G. (1998). The imposition of World War I era English-only policies and the fate of German in North America. In T. Ricento & B. Burnaby (Eds.), Language and politics in the United States and Canada (pp. 211–241). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wiley, T. G. (2005). Literacy and language diversity in the United States. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics & Delta Systems.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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