Although the United States has long experience in educating children from immigrant families, the role the home language should play in the education of those who are not proficient in English remains politically charged and unresolved. For the past four decades, since the first infusion of federal funds that support programs for what are now called "English Language Learners," this question has engaged educators, policy makers, and researchers in a heated debate centering on bilingual education versus English-Only instruction. The first approach generally uses the child's home language either as a transitional bridge to learning English or, less commonly, to develop dual language proficiency over the long term. The now favored English-Only model, "structured English immersion," integrates students who may be of diverse home language backgrounds in a classroom using materials and methods geared toward English language development. This latter approach is vigorously supported by English-Only groups and is largely mandated by state voter initiatives in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts.
Today, as throughout the nation's history, such disagreements over language policy serve as a proxy for widespread concerns over immigration, including the fact that close to 13 percent of the U.S. population is now foreign-born, a figure that is up from 11 percent in 2000. Fears of an immigrant "onslaught" eroding the primacy of English and threatening national identity have effectively immobilized discourse on the education of English Language Learners. Many of the popular arguments, however, that are now advanced against bilingual education are overworked and outdated. Caught in a pedagogical and sociological time warp, these arguments often unfold as if the immigrant population were monolithic, parental preferences were insignificant, family ties were irrelevant, language development allowed no nuances or instructional alternatives, languages were separable from culture and individual identity, and schools still educated children for a life bounded by national borders. The facts belie these commonly held misconceptions.