In September, officials at St. Anne School sent home a letter notifying parents of the new policy, enacted to punish four students for allegedly using Spanish to bully other children and make fun of teachers and administrators.
There are 75 Hispanic and 27 Asian children in the 243-student school, which runs from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade and has no foreign-language classes. Bullying and disrespectful behavior were already prohibited by the school handbook,
but the school’s letter failed to explain why that policy was insufficient to deal with the recent incidents. Nor did it specify why the school’s 71 remaining Spanish speakers, along with its Vietnamese-speaking students, were also being punished by having their languages banned from the hallways. And it failed to indicate whether students who bully others or disrespect their teachers in English will be forced to stop speaking altogether.
St. Anne Catholic School, in Wichita, KS, has 243 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade and is affiliated with St. Anne Catholic Church. But while, according to its website, the school is “committed to life-long learning and growth,” that learning now excludes any language but English.
St. Anne School may well be the first American school to go English-only since the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out state school bans on foreign-languages in 1923. In that case, Meyer v. Nebraska,
a teacher in a Lutheran school was fined $25 for teaching German to an eighth-grader in direct violation of Nebraska’s law forbidding foreign-language instruction. Striking down that statute, the high court wrote, “No emergency has arisen which renders knowledge by a child of some language other than English so clearly harmful as to justify its inhibition, with the consequent infringement of rights long freely enjoyed.”
Before Nebraska and other states banned foreign language teaching, bilingual education had been popular in nineteenth-century American parochial schools. Many of their students came from immigrant families which looked to the schools to help maintain a home language that was rapidly losing ground to English among the young. Public schools, particularly in the Midwest, actually began offering bilingual programs as well back then in an attempt to lure students from the popular church-run schools.
But when the U.S. entered World War I, many states banned foreign language teaching both in public and in private schools, and some, like Iowa, went even further, prohibiting the use of foreign languages in public altogether. Although Meyer v. Nebraska
brought languages back to the classroom after the war, foreign languages were still perceived by many Americans as enemy languages. They were subversive, unpatriotic, or just plain un-American.
Foreign languages are once more a front-burner issue in America, where, as the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, English has become our new “sacred language.” In a backlash against immigration, states, counties, cities, townships, restaurants, and now schools are going English-only yet again, and presidential candidates are routinely asked whether they would support a measure making English the official language of the United States.
Official language laws are often seen as symbolic, no different from picking an official bird or flower. But these laws also send a message about which languages are valuable and which are not. In the 19th century, while some American schools were teaching English and German side by side, the schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs permitted teachers to beat students who spoke Navajo or Hopi instead of English. According to the BIA, English was the language of civilized people, and native languages were not.
Federal policy toward Native American languages has changed, and Congress now routinely allocates funds for their preservation. But official English laws are still regularly construed as prohibiting foreign languages. When a California public library in Monterey Park, a town with a growing Chinese population, received 10,000 Chinese books in a goodwill gesture from the government of China, the mayor sent the books back because they violated California’s official-English law. And when Colorado made English its official language in 1988, a school bus driver told children on his bus that they couldn’t speak Spanish because it was against the law.
And now in Wichita, one Hispanic student, whose first language is English, not Spanish, has already been expelled from St. Anne School because his parents refused to sign the letter agreeing to the new English-only policy (the school says he wasn’t expelled, just relocated to another school in the Wichita diocese).
In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council began permitting the mass in vernacular languages instead of Latin, so that the faithful, most of whom did not speak Latin, could become more involved in their religion. Thanks to Vatican 2, at Wichita’s St. Anne Church, mass is routinely said in English, so that the congregation can understand and participate in the service. There’s also a special 12:30 Sunday mass in Spanish, because the church wants Spanish-speaking Catholics in the parish to stay within the fold as well.
But right around the corner at St. Anne School, where they've upgraded to a new version of Vatican 2, English is the only sacred language, and you won’t hear any Spanish in the hallways, not anymore.