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Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies

reviewed by Josué M. González - June 07, 2010

coverTitle: Forbidden Language: English Learners and Restrictive Language Policies
Author(s): Patricia Gándara and Megan Hopkins (eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775045X, Pages: 272, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Soon after the enactment of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, a persistent research effort began to determine the effectiveness of bilingual education and/or to defend against charges that it was ineffectual. That effort has continued, with mixed findings, for nearly forty years. Most of the research has focused on the effectiveness of transitional bilingual education (TBE) to the exclusion of other forms of bilingual instruction. The studies reported in Forbidden Language are part of that tradition. Specifically, the purpose of this volume is to clarify the effects of restrictive language policies in schools on the lives of English Language Learners (ELLs). Implicit in its foundations is a concern that the replacement of bilingual education with English-only policies has been harmful. This research focus is justified by the fact that TBE is the form of bilingual education outlawed in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts by means of voter initiatives.

Coincidentally, this compilation of studies supports the idea that the research in this field warrants expansion. The need for more diverse research grows as the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) increases rapidly. The editors take note of powerful statistics that underscore the changing linguistic demographics of U.S. schools. Sadly, while ELLs are increasing rapidly, progress in finding better educational tools for serving them has not kept pace. Reams of research reports have issued during the last half century trying to identify language-based solutions to the presumed language hurdles faced by students and schools alike. Many of these studies have been inconclusive; others have shown that TBE is a positive intervention with low level effects or in some cases, merely that it does no harm in the acquisition of English while retarding the loss of ancestral home languages in others. Critics of bilingual education assert that the use of the home language in school does little or nothing to accelerate the learning of English. Forbidden Language is an important contribution to this knowledge base.

While dogged by mixed results, the book is an important update on what we know and continue to wonder about relative to the dichotomy between bilingual education and English-only instruction. It gets us closer to a much needed break with the repetitiveness of these efforts and a broadening of the research agenda in support of language minority students. There is a rising realization, even among bilingual education advocates, that language incompatibilities of the type addressed by TBE programs may not be the most important variable in the education of English Language Learners. The suspicion lingers, however, that English-only interventions, especially those rooted in the bad soil of ethnic prejudice, are no more promising. The editors devote several chapters to an examination of the effects of Propositions 227 in California, 203 in Arizona, and Question 2 in Massachusetts. These were voter initiatives that sought to end bilingual education in those states by codifying voter antipathies toward bilingual education. Also included is a helpful chapter summarizing the effects of the propositions on special education, a much neglected area.

Forbidden Language does not reach a strong conclusion on the effects of the anti-bilingual voter initiatives in Arizona, California, or Massachusetts. After ten years since its passage the impact of the California version, at least, should have been clearer. It was not and we still do not know the long-term effects of these measures or the wisdom of placing curricular policy decisions on ballots. Not since the publication of David Broder's book Democracy Derailed (2000) has there been a serious look at the wisdom of putting such decisions on ballots. Forbidden Language includes an informative taxonomy of contemporary bilingual education. There is also a chapter suggesting that home language instruction should be regarded as a civil right and that the legal infrastructure for that course of action remains viable. In today's political climate this may be wishful thinking. Banking on a civil rights litigation effort seems out of sync with political realities of the day. Witness to this is the Flores v. Arizona case that has bounced around in the courts for some twenty years.  

Notwithstanding the shaky findings on its main goal, the book makes an important summative contribution to the knowledge base. This was accomplished through the selection of well designed pieces of research tightly focused on the purposes of the book and comprehensive literature reviews of related studies. No study of any consequence was omitted in these reviews. Between the lines, however, we read the subtle suggestion by the editors that the value of this line of research is declining. This is not to suggest that bilingual (or dual language) education is without value. Quite the opposite: if it does no damage to the acquisition of English, and helps to maintain home language resources, it is well worth the effort. Respect for the nation's linguistic diversity is worth promoting and bilingual education is a good vehicle for that. The opposite approach, English-only instruction, denies children the benefits of maintaining their home language.

But the situation is not a simple one. In his analysis of the Bilingual Education Act some forty years ago, one of the founders of socio-linguistics, Joshua Fishman, cautioned that TBE does not have sufficient power to carry out the twin tasks of compensatory schooling and language maintenance together. Arguably, the editors of Forbidden Language might agree with this reviewer that Fishman was right. The model of bilingual education known as dual language instruction is an interesting spin-off based on Fishman's theories. Regrettably, dual language instruction has not been widely adopted perhaps because funding sources for this type of program are scarce. Ditto for extensive research on the subject. Hence, while the editors acknowledge the promise of dual language programming, they did not set out to make a comparison, and we are not able to document the advantages of one form of bilingual education over another. The result is the continuing defense of TBE after forty years of mixed results.

Concurrent with a deep re-thinking of the concept of bilingual education, the search for the causes of school failure in the education of language minority children must be recharged and broadened. The extent to which the home languages are used in bilingual classrooms cannot be assumed; such use must be measured and analyzed for variations in effect. There is good evidence that while language incompatibility is one of the causes of the dysfunction there is also evidence that a minimalist use of the home language, as occurs in most TBE programs, is insufficient to end the continued mis-education of these students. It may be necessary or advisable. It facilitates communications with the home, but it is not sufficient to overcome historical inequities.


After decades of seeking the holy grail of bilingual education through research on TBE, a new look is required. Among the candidates for stepped up research activity are cross-generational poverty, the importance of group identity, social justice issues, illiteracy in the home language of adult family members, and the rising hostility against Hispanic immigrants. Somewhere in that mix there are sure to be good insights on how the education of Hispanic children, and perhaps other immigrant children, can be improved. It is not productive to continue to ask whether bilingual education "works" better than other methods. A more sophisticated research agenda might explore what forms of bilingual education work best with what types of students, in what languages, and under what conditions. Concurrently, a new focus is needed to find ways for the public schools and the society in general to promote bilingualism and biliteracy among all children. Professor Gándara, the lead editor of Forbidden Language, concludes her introduction to the book this way:

This volume suggests that a more worthy goal [for bilingual education] might be to work toward developing multilingual, culturally adept citizens who can prosper and contribute to our increasingly global society...the chapters in this book call on educators, researchers, policymakers, and even registered voters to weigh the evidence and reconsider the path restrictive language policies are leading us down and to create new and better learning opportunities for English learnersand for all our nation's students. (p. 4)

Forbidden Language is not the last word on the voter initiatives it set out to study, but it was not for lack of trying. The contributors worked diligently on that goal. From a research perspective their work was comprehensive and methodologically sound. From the perspective of informing public policy they underscore the need for changes to the research agenda in this contentious field.


Broder, D. (2000). Democracy derailed: Initiative campaigns and the power of money. Orlando: Harcourt.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 07, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16004, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:31:15 PM

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About the Author
  • Josué González

    E-mail Author
    JOSUÉ M. GONZÁLEZ is a former Director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs in the U.S. Department of Education. He was a founding member and former President of the National Association for Bilingual Education. More recently, he served as General Editor of the Encyclopedia of Bilingual Education.
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