US Language Repression: Indigenous Struggles

Indigenous groups whose land was eventually assimilated into the United States suffered even more repressive experiences. They endured more discrimination than any other language-minority groups. From the 1850s to the 1950s, native Spanish speakers in Texas and California were taught in English Only instructions while Mexican Americans in Texas segregated to other schools. This discrimination only stopped when segregation was ruled illegal.

Even though the US government initially recognized the language rights of the Cherokees in an 1828 treaty, records show that many other American Indian groups suffered an oppression of their native languages and cultural traditions which also applied to the Cherokees during that period.

In 1879, American Indian children were sent to boarding schools, where they were punished for using their native language. As mentioned earlier, this resulted to the loss of languages of many indigenous groups. In North America, 210 out of 300 original languages remain. In the United States, it is only 175.

Of these languages, only 18 are still being passed on to the children, namely, Hawaiian (in Hawaii), Siberian Yupi’k, Central Yupi’k (in Alaska), Cocopah, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yaqui, Hopi, Navajo, Tohono O’odham, Western Apache, Mescalero, Jemez, Zuni, Tiwa, Keresan, (in Arizona and New Mexico), Cherokee (in Oklahoma), Choctaw (in Mississippi) (Krauss, 1996).

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Reyhner (1996) emphasized the importance of stabilizing and restoring indigenous languages: Many of the keys to the psychological, social, and physical survival of humankind may well be held by the smaller speech communities of the world.

These keys will be lost as languages and cultures die. Our languages are joint creative productions that each generation adds to.

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Languages contain generations of wisdom, going back into antiquity. Our languages contain a significant part of the world’s knowledge and wisdom. When a language is lost, much of the knowledge that language represents is also gone (p. 4). Aside from the fear of severe punishment, this repression of non-English-languages also resulted to the lack of foreign-language skills among the US populace.

This became evident when the need for military and civilian personnel who were proficient in many languages during World War II. Because of this, a radical change happened. US personnel returning overseas helped convince the government of the importance of multiple language resources (Pena, 1976a). The United States’ increasing need to compete for international status and power, influenced by the cold war mentality and the Soviets’ launching of Sputnik, led to an increasing need to expand their foreign-language skills.

In 1958, the National Defense Education Act was approved providing federal money for the expansion of foreign-language teaching. However, this improvement in foreign-language policy still did not resolve the two conflicting philosophies prevalent in US policy that remain to this day. Although this step represented an improvement in foreign-language policy, it did not resolve the two conflicting philosophies prevalent in U. S. policy that remain to this day.

On the one hand, the federal government has recognized the need to develop and support foreign-language instruction for improved international relations, economic development, and national security purposes. On the other hand, a natural resource that new immigrants bring to this country is lost as U. S. schools continue to encourage the loss of native languages of linguistic minorities through insistence on exclusively English instruction. The majority of newcomers entering U. S. schools do not have access to classes taught in their native language.

In schools where bilingual education is available, the most widely implemented form is transitional bilingual education, which is designed as remedial instruction to be offered for only two to three years, after which students are expected to function exclusively in English. The 1960s. The Cubans’ arrival in Miami following the revolution of 1959 reintroduced bilingual instruction into U. S. schools. During this period, bilingual instruction was a response to very specific local conditions—the need to provide education for the Cuban refugees as they poured into Miami.

Cubans quickly established private schools with classes taught in Spanish with the hope that the people could eventually return to their island; but as they recognized that the political situation would not be easily changed, they began to persuade the public schools to establish some bilingual classes. The nation’s first new bilingual program in this century began at Coral Way Elementary School in Miami in 1963, and its success soon led to the establishment of other bilingual schools in Dade County, Florida, as well as in other states in the United States.

Gonzalez (1975) suggests that many special factors influenced the Cubans’ success in establishing bilingual schools, such as their middle- and upper–middle-class status; the presence of trained Cuban teachers among those who resettled; the aid of the Cuban Refugee Act in providing special training and jobs for the refugees; special sympathy for the refugees, who were seen as victims of their political situation; and a lesser degree of racism expressed towards them because of the predominance of Hispanics of light-skinned European stock among the first groups to arrive.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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US Language Repression: Indigenous Struggles. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

US Language Repression: Indigenous Struggles essay
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