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True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children

reviewed by Amanda K. Kibler - May 18, 2010

coverTitle: True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children
Author(s): Rosemary C. Salomone
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674046528, Pages: 320, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

The recent passage of Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona and the ensuing national and international debate have proven that issues of immigration in the United States are more contentious than ever, and Rosemary Salomones recent book, True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children reminds us of the intimate ties between schooling and Americans differing views regarding the place of immigrants, and their languages, in our society and in our schools. This expertly researched, detailed work challenges readers to recognize the complexity of the immigrant experience and the linguistic, political, legal, and socioeconomic factors that shape language minority students experiences in schools. True American is an accessible volume that is well positioned to encourage conversations among educational researchers, students, legal scholars, policy makers, and general readers interested in immigration and language policies in the United States.

The author contends that language has significant symbolic power in society at large (chapter 1), where it is often merely a proxy for race, national origin, or religion (p. 4). Successive waves of immigration in the last 200 years have brought increasingly diverse people to the United States and have forced ongoing re-evaluations of American identity. Because, according to Salomone, schooling by its nature is a prime vehicle for indoctrinating the young in a common core of values and political principles (p. 5), education has become a contested venue for enacting larger concerns of national identity.

The first major section of the book (chapters 2 and 3) presents an historical portrait of immigration from the late 1880s to the present. Drawing upon her substantial knowledge of the history of education more generally, the author argues that tales of early, largely European immigration are overly sentimentalized (p. 14) and ignore realities of harsh receptions, hostility, and poor schooling. While such trends have not changed in recent times, new patterns of immigration after the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act (1965) have resulted in a current population of more demographically diverse and geographically dispersed immigrants. Citing recent developments in technology and economic and international policies, Salomone contends that these immigrants are much more likely than previous ones to lead transnational lives.

Chapter 4 provides an analysis of immigration and language at personal, political, and familial levels.  Evidence from several disciplines is marshaled to argue that language and identity are closely related, and as a result, language is embedded in social relationships and political agendas. Salomone contextualizes these notions with a small interview study of her own, examining second-generation law students experiences as children of immigrants. While these students are not representative of many second-generation immigrants, the findings are nonetheless compelling: the author documents how these students home languages and cultural resources were squandered (p. 97) by schools, as well as the ways in which students have attempted to build and maintain personal and social ties across multiple nations and cultures.

Salomone draws upon her legal background in chapters 5, 6, and 7, demonstrating how court cases, congressional decisions, and administrative actions have created de-facto language policies in the United States that show ambivalence toward non-English languages and a commitment to bilingualism she characterizes as ambiguous (p. 111). Exploring decisions in cases such as Meyer v. Nebraska, Brown v. Board of Education, Lau v. Nichols, and the more recent Horne v. Flores, among others, Salomone clearly explains the legal bases and implications of these decisions for future policies and legal challenges. Her discussion of the Lau decision, a case that is perhaps the most frequently cited in discussions of English language learners in the U.S., is incredibly thorough. While to some readers this section may appear overly detailed, scholars working on language policy will find it a valuable resource.  These chapters also present the social and political contexts shaping language-related provisions of the Civil Rights Act, the Bilingual Education Act, various reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). While acknowledging that NCLB marks a dramatic reversal from the letter and spirit of the original Bilingual Education Act and inexorably moves education toward English immersion programs, Salomone contends that the law reflects broader political shifts and organized opposition to bilingual or native-language instruction rather than a new approach to language in schools (p. 162-163).  

She concludes this section with a proposal of her own, building on a recommendation made in the 1980s by an Office of Civil Rights official. She suggests that an English Language Learner Act be passed that establishes individualized instructional planning and monitoring of students, modeled after individual education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. For some advocates of language minority students, any proposal that links language learners with disability is unlikely to garner significant support, but the authors reasoning that this practice would make decisions about the language of instruction more pedagogically than politically based is nonetheless provocative.  

Turning from policy, chapter 8 brings research to bear on claims made by English-only proponents about language learning and education. Much as Rolstad, et al. (2005) and Tse (2001) have done, this chapter reviews educational research on instructional models as well as linguistic and sociolinguistic findings on bilingualism and language shift, countering arguments made by opponents of bilingual or native language instruction. Salomones contributions to this effort are to bring several strands of recent research together and to argue that future studies must both complicate and clarify what works for different immigrant populations and learners.

The books penultimate chapter (9) is perhaps the most conceptually and rhetorically sophisticated, arguing that comparative perspectives would benefit the U.S. and Western Europe in relation to issues of immigration, migration, and educational policies and practices. Holding up neither region as a model, Salomone suggests that European countries might still serve as a reference point (p. 201) for the U.S. and might encourage reflection on American identity in relation to language and schools. Likewise, European countries could benefit from analysis of U.S. policies, especially as they relate to immigrant rights. Highlighting the dynamic and contextual nature of language issues in education, this argument may frustrate those readers seeking quick policy applications or lessons from abroad.

Citing the landmark Lau decision, the author argues that current discussions of and policies for immigrant students have lost sight of a meaningful education, which she contends should build on childrens cultural and linguistic identities, including the transnationality of their lives (chapter 10). While acknowledging that the relationship between language and national identity in the United States is indeed a web of paradoxes (p. 232), Salomone is hopeful, placing faith not only in the possibility that policies might change but also in the fact that immigrants transnational lives create an increasing need for multilingualism in America. Her suggestions for new federal policy, legal challenges, and congressional actions that actively encourage multilingualism might sound familiar to many involved in immigrant education, but the specificity of her proposals and the richness of her background research may convince readers that these changes are not only necessary, they might even be possible.


Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy, 19(4), 572-594.

Tse, L. (2001). Why don't they learn English: Separating fact from fallacy in the U.S. language debate. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 18, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15983, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:28:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Amanda Kibler
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA KIBLER is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Stanford University School of Education. Recent and forthcoming publications focusing on language minority students, language policy, and second language writing can be found in Teachers College Record, the Journal of Second Language Writing, and Symposium Books. She is currently working on a study of adolescent multilingual students' longitudinal writing development.
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