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Monolingual Language Ideologies and the Idealized Speaker: The “New Bilingualism” Meets the “Old” Educational Inequities

by Chris K. Chang-Bacon - 2021

Background/Context: After decades of restrictive U.S. language policies geared toward English-only education, recent years have seen a proliferation of dual-language programs, Seal of Biliteracy awards, and bilingual education programming more broadly. The demand for such programming ostensibly suggests growing consensus around the benefits of linguistic diversity—dubbed “The New Bilingualism” by The Atlantic in 2016. However, recent research suggests that the pivot to this New Bilingualism is largely taking place in contexts of privilege, disproportionately benefiting English-dominant, middle- and upper-class communities as compared with multilingual communities where demand for bilingual programming is not “new” at all.

Focus of Study: This piece explores how recent, well-intentioned expansions in bilingual education programming may actually reinforce historical inequities. Putting forth a framework of idealized language ideologies, the article documents how bilingualism has historically been encouraged for some and denied to others in U.S. education and policy contexts.

Research Design: Through historical analysis, this article documents how language ideologies overlap with racism and nationalism in educational and policy contexts across key periods of U.S. history and into the present day.

Conclusions/Recommendations: A framework of idealized language ideologies foregrounds (1) idealized language practices, (2) idealized speakers, and (3) institutional interests, highlighting how these dynamics function to maintain educational and broader social inequities. Applying such a lens makes it possible to simultaneously acknowledge positive expansions of bilingual programming, while also questioning the framing of such programming as “new” or as a panacea for educational inequality. In a time of rapid expansion for bilingual educational programming, this piece demonstrates that even bilingualism can be normatively framed as an idealized language ideology to reinforce problematic language hierarchies. Thus, it is imperative that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers reckon with these historical dynamics to ensure that educational models designed to ameliorate linguistic inequities do not end up reproducing them instead.

Graduates in white and purple robes exited the auditorium, their newly turned tassels bouncing as they sang and danced to a recording of the popular Latin salsa tune, Vivir Mi Vida. They had just graduated . . . many with more than a high-school diploma. Forty-six of the 51 new alumni of the dual-language school had also earned a Seal of Biliteracy, an official recognition of their academic proficiency in both English and Spanish.

The New Bilingualism, The Atlantic (Gross, 2016)

As the preceding celebratory scene exemplifies, there has been a significant shift in the U.S. educational landscape. After decades of restrictive language policies geared toward English-only education (Battey et al., 2013; Olsen, 2009), recent years have seen a proliferation of dual-language programs, Seal of Biliteracy awards, and bilingual education programming more broadly (Boyle et al., 2015; Dorner, 2016; Heineke & Davin, 2020). Ostensibly, the demand for such programming suggests a growing consensus around the benefits of linguistic diversitya New Bilingualism, as dubbed by The Atlantic (Gross, 2016). However, recent research suggests that the pivot to this so-called New Bilingualism is largely taking place in contexts of privilege, disproportionately benefiting English-dominant, middle- and upper-class communities, as compared with multilingual communities where demand for such programming is not new at all (Cervantes-Soon et al., 2017; Flores & García, 2017; Morales & Rao, 2015; Valdez et al., 2016).

Some suggest that the dramatic increase in demand for bilingual educational programming represents a tipping point in a nation with a history of monolingual orientations. As I argue in this piece, however, understanding this shift necessitates a framework that puts these orientations, or language ideologies (Irvine et al., 2009; Rosa & Burdick, 2017), into conversation with broader histories of racism, nationalism, and educational policy in U.S. contexts.1 Such a framework reveals the New Bilingualism as less new, and instead as a continuation of U.S. language policy that has always advocated bilingualism for some and monolingualism for others. As educational research proceeds to document inequitable access to this New Bilingualism, I argue that teachers and researchers must ask why the New Bilingualism continues to replicate the same old educational inequalities (Bartolomé, 2010; Carter Andrews et al., 2019; Souto-Manning, 2019).

In this piece, I offer a framework of idealized language ideologiesthe process by which (1) a certain set of language practices becomes idealized, (2) in regard to particular populations, and (3) in the interests of particular institutional power dynamics. Core to this framework is an exploration of monolingualism itself. Indeed, the very possibility of a New Bilingualism necessitates an old monolingualism to be supplanted. But what, exactly, is that monolingualism? Through this framework, I document the ideological erasure that must take place to portray bilingualism as new in a country that has always been characterized by multilingual language practices.

In particular, I highlight the role of education in maintaining or disrupting idealized language ideologies, both historically and today. Though the use of education to maintain problematic language hierarchies has been documented (e.g., Macedo, 2000; Spring, 2016; Wiley, 2014), these histories largely focus on restrictive, monolingual language policies rather than the current pendulum swing toward a seeming embrace of bilingualism in educational contexts. A consequence of this disconnect is the temptation to view the New Bilingualism as a quick fix for educational and linguistic inequities, even as those inequities stubbornly persist.

Instead, exploring the notion of a New Bilingualism through a lens that accounts for idealized language ideologies, nationalism, and racism makes it possible to simultaneously acknowledge the positive growth of bilingual programming, while also questioning its newness or role as a panacea for linguistic inequity. In a time of rapid expansion for bilingual educationwith laudable moves toward bilingualism for all (see Flores et al., 2020; Hamman, 2018; Morales & Razfar, 2016)such a lens empowers teachers and researchers to play a role in determining what for all truly means.

To achieve these aims, I first present a theoretical perspective that connects language ideologies to educational policy and classroom practice. In this section, I begin with a brief overview of monolingualism as a language ideology and its role in educationin other words, bringing the New Bilingualism into conversation with the old monolingualism it purports to supplant. I then introduce a framework of idealized language ideologies that highlights (1) idealized language practices, (2) idealized speakers, and (3) institutional interests. For the remainder of the piece, I apply this framework to a historical analysis of educational language policy and practice (Tollefson, 2015) across four eras of U.S. historythe colonial era, the Americanization era, the civil rights era, and today. This analysis illustrates how idealized language ideologies have been used to uphold linguistic, racial, and educational hierarchies across these eras and into the present day. Ultimately, this framework helps explain why well-intentioned educational models designed to ameliorate linguistic inequities can end up reproducing them instead. The conclusion of the article offers implications for teachers and educational researchers for addressing idealized language ideologies and the inequities these ideologies create in schools and in society writ large.



The study of language ideologies explores how beliefs about language influence, and are influenced by, societal power dynamics (Irvine et al., 2009; Rosa & Burdick, 2017). Previous research has studied language ideologies that uphold monolingualism as a norm, even though the majority of the worlds population is multilingual (Shin, 2017). Ellis (2006) identified three major representations of monolingualism in scholarship: (1) monolingualism as the unmarked case; (2) monolingualism as a limitation; and (3) monolingualism as a dangerous phenomenon. In the first representation, monolingualism is the unmarked case when it is treated as the default mode of language use. The way students are labeled in U.S. educational contexts exemplifies this phenomenon, with students learning English receiving marked status through specialized labels, such as English language learners, whereas monolingual speakers of the dominant language are simply students (Gogolin, 1997; Matsuda & Duran, 2013). The second representation of monolingualism as a limitation frames being monolingual as a disadvantage for individual language users, education systems, or nations as a whole. Such limitations might include economic or professional disadvantages in an increasingly multilingual globalized workforce (Callahan & Gándara, 2014). Finally, monolingualism as a dangerous phenomenon highlights how monolingual language ideologies have been used to marginalize certain groups while maintaining the power of others (Heller & McElhinny, 2017; Motha, 2014). This can manifest overtly, such as the literal banning of specific languages, or it may operate more subtly. Educational researchers, for example, argue that monolingual testing policies prevent accurate assessment of multilingual populations, leading to inordinate tracking of students learning English into remedial education and underrepresentation in gifted educational programming (García & Kleifgen, 2018; MacSwan & Rolstad, 2006).

Importantly, language ideologies do not necessarily reflect the actual language practices of a given community. Instead, they reflect beliefs, or dominant ideas of what language practices are presumed to (or supposedly ought to) look like within these contexts. For example, language ideologies can frame a nation such as the United States, where a variety of multilingual language practices have always existed, as a ubiquitously monolingual country (Wiley, 2014). Irvine et al. (2009) described this process as erasure, wherein the existence of language practices that do not fit within the schema of a dominant language ideological narrative are ignored or explained away. Such erasure makes it possible to idealize monolingualism as a norm, even in pervasively multilingual contexts (Silverstein, 1996; Yildiz, 2012).

Education plays a key role in this process. Research has demonstrated that students quickly learnboth directly and indirectlywhich languages practices are deemed acceptable in the classroom and which are framed as incorrect (Bacon, 2017; Delpit & Dowdy, 2008; Howard & Rodriguez-Minkoff, 2017; Lippi-Green, 2012). In school contexts, this framing can range from enforcing English-only classrooms to teachers disparaging students legitimate use of their own dialectal variations. Despite long-standing evidence that all language varieties are equal from a linguistic standpoint (e.g., Labov, 1969; Rickford, 1999), educational researchers continue to document the elevation of some language practices over others in K12 classrooms and teacher educationbiases that generally map onto preexisting racial and class prejudices (Baker-Bell, 2020; Flores & Rosa, 2015; Godley et al., 2015; Metz, 2018; Smith, 2019). The pervasiveness of these language ideologies in educational spaces can convince students that societal linguistic biases are legitimate, thus furthering the intergenerational renewal of monolingual language ideologies.


In addition to monolingualism as a language ideology, I argue that there is much to gain from a related, but broader framework of idealized language ideologies.2 Monolingual language ideologies uphold one specific language practice as the norm (e.g., so-called standard English). On the other hand, a framework of idealized language ideologies highlights the malleability of these supposed normsinvolving (1) a set of idealized language practices (2) mapped onto an idealized speaker (3) in relation to certain institutional interests or power dynamics (see Figure 1). This framework helps to explain the entrenchment of problematic language hierarchies, whether through restrictive monolingual language policies or within educational programs ostensibly geared toward bilingualism.


Figure 1. Idealized language ideologies framework

The first part of the framework focuses on idealized language practices. All language practices are, from a linguistic standpoint, equally complex in their rule-governedness and potential for expression (Reaser et al., 2017; Rickford, 1999). Nevertheless, as described earlier, research has documented the persistence of common, though erroneous, notions that there exists a specific set of language practices that represents the most correct form of language use (e.g., English-only or so-called standard English in U.S. educational and societal contexts). However, rather than ending with the idea of a singular, static standard that is equally applied to all speakers in all contexts, I argue that it is also necessary to explore how idealized language practices, in fact, shift in relation to specific individuals, groups, or power dynamics. This stands in contrast to monolingual language ideologiesa theory that can fall into its own trap by suggesting that there exists an objective, static (literally mono-lingual) language practice that is consistently held up as the standard in the first place. Instead, idealized language practices highlight the inconsistency with which various language practices come to be idealized in relation to the other two components of the framework.

Thus, the second part of the framework highlights an idealized speaker. This concept underscores how different sets of language practices can be idealized for different individuals, groups, or populations. In U.S. educational contexts, for example, white, English-dominant students may be praised for attaining an idealized form of bilingualism (e.g., studying Spanish or French in school or abroad), whereas students of color who grew up speaking multiple languages are not afforded the same level of recognition (Flores & Rosa, 2015) and may even be compelled toward English-monolingualism. As another example, Black youth whose language practices include features common to African American English (i.e., Black English; see Baker-Bell, 2020) may be taught that an idealized speaker knows how to code switch into idealized dialects of English associated with white middle-class individuals or institutions. In this way, recognizing the notion of an idealized speaker offers the possibility to challenge assumptions around whose language practices should be accommodated, and by whom. Analyzing the shifting standards of what becomes idealized based on who is doing the speaking reveals factors such as race, class, gender, abledness, or other sociocultural ways of being that shape idealized language ideologies and who stands to benefit from them.

The third part of the framework, institutional interests, focuses on the role of societal institutions and the power dynamics they reproduce. Institutions can include schools, professions, or even the nation-state. A nation-state, for example, may promote different language practices for different speakers for different purposes. The idea of a monolingual nation may be seen as a way to encourage social cohesion, commerce, or the power of a particular linguistic group (Gramling, 2016). However, that same nation-state may shift its priorities to idealize the economic necessity of a multilingual workforce that can compete in an increasingly globalized economy (Shin, 2017). A common justification for the New Bilingualism, in fact, cites the economic advantage of bilingualism for employers, governments, and business interests (or what some have called the commodification of language; see Heller, 2010). In these ways, institutional interests play a key role in relation to the other components of the frameworkrevealing why or to what ends certain language practices become idealized for different individuals while also affording institutional legitimization to idealized language ideologies themselves.


Idealized language ideologies are more than the sum of their three partsin tandem, each component can be used to mask or justify another. A teacher might evade the criticism, for example, of favoring white middle-class language practices by framing instructional choices as simply teaching a neutral set of idealized (i.e., standard, academic, professional) language practices. In this way, the specific attributes of the idealized speaker (e.g., race, gender, abledness) can be replaced by ostensibly neutral language practices. Likewise, any movement toward legitimizing a broader range of language practices in schools can be met with reference to institutional interests or accessthe argument that students must acquiesce to idealized language practices for cover letters, job interviews, or standardized assessments. Thus, the reproduction of idealized language ideologies can even be couched in terms of social justice, positing that students use of idealized language practices will insulate them from other forms of racial, class, or linguistic discriminationa theory of change that rarely plays out in practice (Alim & Smitherman, 2012; Baker-Bell, 2020; Flores & Rosa, 2015; Metz, 2018).  

Furthermore, a framework of idealized language ideologies allows for a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of language in society: that even bilingualism can be framed as an idealized language practice and leveraged to advantage some groups over others. This is represented quite literally in popular mantras such as Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century (Roberts et al., 2018, p. 116). Of course, such statements represent a well-intentioned reframing of historical linguistic discrimination. Nevertheless, both notionsmonolingualism as the norm or bilingualism as superiorrepresent idealized language ideologies. Thus, this framework opens up the possibility to analyze the history of U.S. education not as an inevitable march toward monolingualism, but as a complex interaction of language practices, speakers, and institutional interests in which both monolingualism and multilingualism have been strategically deployed to uphold particular educational norms and societal power relations.


Most efforts to expose or even dismantle problematic language hierarchies in educational contexts have focused on the existence of linguistic hierarchies themselves rather than the processes through which they have been created. I suggest that it is impossible to disrupt these hierarchies without first understanding their history of production (see Figure 1). Therefore, in the remainder of this piece, I apply the framework of idealized language ideologies to educational policies and practices throughout U.S. history. Far from a comprehensive history, this analysis highlights key shifts and continuities in educational and societal language policies across four focal eras: the colonial era, the Americanization era, the civil rights era, and the New Bilingualism in the present day. This analysis illustrates how movements toward English-monolingualism and the encouragement of bilingualism (for some) have both been leveraged in relation to institutional interests across these eras. I argue that grappling with these histories represents a necessary first step for teachers and educational researchers to disrupt the linguistic, racial, and nationalist hierarchies produced through idealized language ideologies.   



Historical Context

Policies geared toward idealizing a certain set of language practices have long been a tool of empire and nation building (Motha, 2014; Phillipson, 1992), particularly in regard to U.S. education and its relationship to colonialism (Spring, 2016). However, it is important to acknowledge that monolingualism has never been an actual reflection of language practices on the North American continent, where well over 300 Native American languages have historically been spoken (Brisk, 2006). In the era of European colonization, the language practices of Native Americans and European colonists were characterized by multilingualism as a social, economic, and political necessity (McCarty, 2004). When the Dutch ceded the area of Manhattan to Great Britain in 1664, it is estimated that at least 18 European languages were spoken on the island (Crawford, 1999). Early colonies were established with multiple official languages, and even into the early years of U.S. nationhood, it was common for both federal and state declarations to be printed in a variety of European languages (de Jong, 2011).

Yet, within in the multilingual reality that characterized the North American continent, linguistic accommodations were only offered for some, while others were compelled toward monolingualism. Applying the notion of the idealized speaker highlights how the multilingual accommodations of the era were almost exclusively afforded in the case of European colonists and their white descendants, whereas the use of non-European languages, particularly among populations of color, was often restricted or banned outright (Wiley, 2014). Native American languages, for example, were regarded as inferior and potently subversive within early U.S. language policy (Spring, 2016). Likewise, it was common for enslaved Africans to be segregated into heterogeneous language groups, or forbidden to speak non-European languages, a practice enforced by white enslavers to sever cultural and familial bonds while hindering the possibility of revolt (McCarty, 2004; Rickford & Rickford, 2000). Thus, institutional interestsin this case, the anti-indigenous interests of a settler nation-state and the economic interests of enslaversaccommodated bilingual language practices for Europeans and their descendants racialized as white, while the idealized language practices for Black and Native American populations of the era involved enforced English monolingualism.

Educational Implications

Education played a key role in upholding idealized language ideologies in the colonial era. Rather than an inevitable march toward monolingualism for all, as the early history of U.S. education is often framed, the distinctions between accommodating and suppressing bilingualism in the early years of U.S. nationhood largely fell along racialized lines of idealized-speakerhood and institutional interests. As the nations leadership increasingly recognized that public education (for white, and usually male, pupils) would be in the national interest, schools offered instruction in a number of languages spoken by European immigrant communities to popularize public schooling (Crawford, 1999; de Jong, 2011). Even as English became the dominant medium of public schooling, the study of additional languages was a core component of early U.S. curriculum. Students were expected to study classical languages such as Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages like French and German (Schiro, 2012). Prominent figures of the time, such as Thomas Jefferson, were educated multilingually and lauded for their cosmopolitan multilingualism (Monticello, 2020). At the same time, the individuals Jefferson and other white plantation owners enslaved would have been subject to laws forbidding their education altogether (Rickford & Rickford, 2000). As such, while the study of multiple languages was established as a core component of early U.S. education, those who were forbidden access to that education, particularly populations of color, were compelled toward English-monolingualism. Subsequent portrayals of these populations as uneducated, and their language practices illegitimate, were used to justify the institutional interests of continued enslavement (DeBose, 2007), the further appropriation of Native American lands (Grande, 2015), and the broader maintenance of racial hierarchies in U.S. education and national policy.

Framing Idealized Language Ideologies

The idealized language ideologies of this era made foundational contributions to educational policies and practices that resonate across U.S. history. In particular, the ways that both monolingualism and bilingualism have been variously promoted for certain populations underscore the malleability of idealized language ideologies, which can be shaped to advance particular institutional interests. Early educational policies were enacted specifically to encourage some populations into the growing institution of public schooling (e.g., German-speaking immigrants) and to exclude others (e.g., populations of color, regardless of the languages they spoke). The resulting linguistic hierarchies were then used to justify educational access for certain populations, which in turn reinforced racist ideas around the intellectual and cultural superiority of European colonizers and their white descendants (Kendi, 2016). As we will see in the following section, however, institutional interests can and do shift. These changes can result in a reframing of what language practices and which speakers are idealized. In such times of change, education continues to play a key role in establishing and reinforcing new sets of idealized language ideologies.


Historical Context

Although the guiding question of early U.S. educational policy and practice may have asked whose bilingualism matters, the period that came to be known as the Americanization era highlights a new question: Whose monolingualism matters? In the early to mid-20th century, immigration from non-Anglophone countries sharply increased. As a result, language, and the idea of a monolingual nation in particular, played a heightened role in institutional interests across both education and policy toward attempts to define what it meant to be American. Throughout this era, both immigration and educational policies were informed by nativist backlash (Galindo, 2011) leading U.S. lawmakers to enact explicit language-based immigration policies. Immigrants from China faced a full immigration ban in 1882, the first such ban in U.S. history, partially based on the argument that Chinese immigrants ostensibly refused to assimilate linguistically (Lee, 2003). The Naturalization Act of 1906 made the ability to speak English a requirement for naturalized citizenship, and the Immigration Act of 1924 included a system of quotas privileging immigrants from English-speaking countries. Such policies legislated notions of an idealized speaker in regard to immigrant populationsnamely privileging those already able to speak English or those quick to assimilate to English monolingualism (Knobel, 1996).

Although assimilation to English monolingualism was often considered the driving force of this distinction, it is important to note how this assimilation-via-language was afforded to some populations more readily than others. In particular, it is necessary to explore how proximity to evolving institutional standards of whiteness influenced who could or could not embody this American identity and how schools played a key role in institutionalizing the idealized language ideologies of the era.

Educational Implications

Throughout the Americanization era, education was widely viewed as the space in which to rectify the perceived nonassimilation of immigrant communities (Mirel, 2010) and to Americanize colonized populations (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). Spanish-speaking communities in Mexican territories annexed by the United States after the Mexican-American War were compelled to use English (Crawford, 2000), and many Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and communities to attend English-only boarding schools (Wolfe, 2006; Woolford, 2015). Punitive educational practices, such as disciplining students, often physically, for speaking languages other than English, were common (Spring, 2016). In regard to pedagogy, students learning English as a new language in schools received very little support: Pupils were placed in English-only classrooms with few instructional accommodations (i.e., a sink or swim model; Wright, 2019); newly arrived students were often placed in first grade regardless of age; and the emerging popularization of standardized intelligence tests led to a disproportionate number of immigrant students being identified as cognitively disabled (de Jong, 2011). As new laws codified a core purpose of schooling as the acquisition of English (Knobel, 1996), schools became a primary place in which the English language was explicitly associated with national identity, other languages with foreign-ness, and their speakers as decidedly non-American (Galindo, 2011).

However, it is important to complexify the popular narrative around the Americanization era as purely a drive toward monolingualism. Somewhat paradoxically, this was also the period in which the learning of so-called foreign languages became increasingly popular in U.S. curriculum (Schiro, 2012). Schools began to deprioritize the classic languages of Latin and Greek to focus on modern foreign languages such as French, German, and Spanish, which remain the most studied languages other than English in U.S. schools today (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2011). Notably, such education was only afforded to a privileged minority of students, with only 22% of students estimated to be enrolled in foreign language learning by 1949 (Kliebard, 2018). Multiple wars and colonization campaigns of the era had made multilingualism a military necessity, and the U.S. government coordinated efforts to bolster language education (Pavlenko, 2003). Even Native American languages, having survived centuries of policies geared toward their eradication, played a key role in U.S. military strategyincluding the Navajo code talkers, whose ancestral language was promoted as an undecipherable code during World War II (Meadows, 2016).

As in the colonial era, idealized language practices played out differently in regard to various populations and institutional interests. Although immigrants from a range of global contexts faced discrimination and struggled under the pressures toward linguistic and cultural assimilation, immigrants who could meet the malleable U.S. standards of whiteness were afforded various privileges such as land allowances (e.g., Homestead Acts, 18621934; Shanks, 2005), voting rights, and access to public schooling (Omi & Winant, 2014; Spring, 2016). While no guarantee to unfettered prosperity, Americanization, particularly assimilation to the idealized language practices of English monolingualism, generally afforded the white descendants of European immigrants access to the full potentialities of U.S. citizenship within one to two generations (Roediger, 2006).

For both immigrant and U.S.-born populations of color, mastery of the idealized language practices of English monolingualism came with few such benefits. Though restrictive language policies continued to compel populations of color toward English monolingualism and specific dialectal varieties therein (Bonfiglio, 2010), this linguistic assimilation guaranteed no change in legal status for populations of color who had been, and were further, barred from education, employment, and civic participation for generations (Ortiz, 2018). Immigrant populations of all races and nationalities largely assimilated to the language practices of English monolingualism (Wiley, 2000), but those who did not qualify for the American legal construction of whiteness were still denied full access to many of the privileges of U.S. citizenship and educational access for generations.

Framing Idealized Language Ideologies

Thus, the question of the Americanization eraWhose monolingualism counts?plays a key role in the historical production of idealized language ideologies in U.S. educational contexts. In contrast to some histories of the era, the nativist backlash of the age was not solely an issue of immigrants perceived ability to speak English. If that had been the case, all immigrant populationswho, by and large, took up English usage at similar rateswould have benefitted equally. This highlights a key feature of idealized language ideologies: that it is not only a matter of attaining a set of certain, idealized language practices, but how those language practices relate to instructional interests for different groups of idealized speakers, particularly in regard to race and perceived citizenship. In other words, the continued institutional interests of colonization and white supremacy remain foundational to the historical production of idealized language ideologies in educational and broader societal contexts. These interests are further exemplified in the case of the civil rights era, as explored in the next section.  


Historical Context

The civil rights era of the mid-20th century led to major changes in education and U.S. society at large. This included many well-known historical landmarks, such as the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) school desegregation ruling and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Educational and community advocates also fought for increased recognition for the racially and linguistically diverse populations in U.S. schools during this era, including the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols in 1974. In Lau (1974), the court determined that students in English-only education settings who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education (p. 566), and it established refusals to accommodate the needs of students who were learning English as a civil rights violation.

However, in the largely decentralized U.S. education system, such federal mandates carry little directive weight on exactly how such policies are implemented (Reyes, 2006; Spillane, 2009). At the state level, the decades following initial victories for bilingual language rights saw an unprecedented push for English-only legislation. Before 1981, only two states (Illinois, 1923; Nebraska, 1923) had laws declaring English the official language of the state. For most of U.S. history, there was little widespread concern that the nations overwhelmingly dominant language needed legal protection (Crawford, 2000). However, state policies in the late 20th century developed within a context of backlash against the civil rights movement and shifts in immigration patterns, particularly increased immigration from Latin America and Asia (de Jong, 2011). This opposition was fueled by a spike in political rhetoric around undocumented migration (Hornberger et al., 1999) and projections that the United States would become a majority non-white nation by the mid-21st century (Arington, 1991).

Informed by this rhetoric, 27 additional states passed legislation declaring English the sole official state language between 1981 and 2016. Such laws generally mandate that all official state business, record-keeping, publications, and legal proceedings be conducted in English. Despite the construction of such policies to discriminate based on language, not race, such policies have since been shown to have a disproportionate impact on multilingual communities of color (Macedo, 2000), erecting barriers to civic participation, immigration, voting, employment, and legal due process (Barros, 2017).

Educational Implications

At the turn of the 21st century, this momentum for legislative monolingualism was broadened to target K12 education specifically through English-only education mandates passed by voters in California (1998), Arizona (2000), and Massachusetts (2002). Whereas the previous official state language laws did not necessarily apply to K12 education explicitly, this series of English-only education bills mandated that all public school children must be taught English by being taught all subjects in English and being placed in English language classrooms (Galvin, 2002, p. 6). These bills led to the dismantling of bilingual education in states with historically robust bilingual programming and policies (McField, 2014).

Still, even within this period of legislated monolingualism, the value of bilingualism continued to be institutionally recognized in certain contexts. Research increasingly demonstrated the cognitive benefits of bilingualism (e.g., Bialystok, 2011), and arguments for the necessity of a multilingual workforce in response to an ever more globalized economy abounded (Callahan & Gándara, 2014; Shin, 2017). Notably, some of the English-only education laws were waived in the case of dual-language programs that served the needs of students already fluent in English (Boyle et al., 2015; Cervantes-Soon, 2014). Crucially, such programming was not widely available to students designated as English learners, who instead primarily received mandated English-only education (Arias & Faltis, 2012). In addition, despite its English-only education law, California passed the nations first legislation to award a Seal of Biliteracy to students who demonstrated competence in multiple languages upon graduation (Heineke & Davin, 2020). Although official data are not consistently gathered on who attains such seals, recent research suggests that students designated as English learners are not the primary beneficiaries, as compared with English-dominant students positioned as studying in foreign or world languages (Subtirelu et al., 2019). This phenomenon is laid particularly bare in the case of Arizona, which approved a Seal of Biliteracy in 2016, but as of this writing still mandates English-only education for students designated as English learners (Mitchell, 2019).

Framing Idealized Language Ideologies

Thus, harkening back to the early period of colonization, tensions continued to manifest in regard to idealized language ideologies and the institutional interests that shape these ideologies in practicepromoting bilingualism for some, and enforcing monolingualism for others. Although the decades following the civil rights era saw some of the first national legislation geared toward addressing the needs of students learning English in U.S. classrooms, there was also a major push to legislate particular sets of idealized language practices at the institutional level, both in schools and in U.S. society more broadly, through English-only laws. Still, recognition around the value of bilingualism and the availability of bilingual education programming increasedfor somethroughout this era and into the modern day. These tensions have arguably come to the fore in current educational policy and practice through the notion of a New Bilingualism.  


Historical Context

That the United States has never legislated an official national language is often held up to project an ethos of multilingual inclusivity. Yet, the idealized language ideologies of the modern day remain particularly relevant to perceptions of who is, or is not, considered American. As in the past, even full assimilation to English monolingualism generally grants unquestioned citizen status only to those perceived to be white, while people of color often retain the status of perpetual foreigner in U.S. racial discourse (Ng et al., 2007). For the latter populations, English monolingualism is no guarantee against an onslaught of commentary on speaking English so well (Tsuda, 2014), being so articulate (Alim & Smitherman, 2012), or questions of where are you from/really from/your family fromquestions comedian and filmmaker Hari Kondabolu (2011) distilled down to Hey, why arent you white? Indeed, as Rosa and Flores (2017) discussed through their framework of raciolinguistics, the linguistic practices of racialized populations are systematically stigmatized regardless of the extent to which these practices might seem to correspond to standardized norms (p. 623.). The racialized components of idealized language ideologies have even been shown to drive accent hallucination, the perception of a foreign accent when listening to a speaker of color, regardless of whether any such accent exists (Fought, 2006; Rubin, 1992). Idealized language ideologies, therefore, not only construct a default norm of idealized English monolingualism but also intersect with the presumption of a default American race in whiteness (Pérez & Enciso, 2017; Schwartz, & Boovy, 2017). These ideologies, in turn, influence whose language practices are considered legitimate, acceptable, or standard American language practices.  

Thus, analyzing the connections between language, race, nationality, and institutional interests continues to be necessary for understanding idealized language ideologies in current contexts. Although U.S. society generally purports to condemn public displays of overt racism (Ladson-Billings, 1998; López, 2015), exceptions are often made for anti-immigrant sentiment (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2009) or discrimination based on language practices (Baker-Bell, 2020; Godley et al., 2015; Matsuda & Duran, 2013)both often framed as more palatable, or plausibly deniable, forms of racism. Thus, in a time of what Bonilla-Silva (2003/2018) described as an age of racism without racists, language, and its connection to perceived national origin and citizenship status, has become a key proxy for institutionalized discrimination, and racial profiling in U.S. contexts (Allard, 2015; Stack, 2019; Viesca, 2013).

Educational Implications

Despite the recent spike in demand for bilingual education programming (Medina, 2016), it is estimated that only 3% of the nations students are enrolled in bilingual or dual-language education programs (Goldenberg & Wagner, 2015). The overwhelming majority of U.S. students continue to receive monolingual English instruction through explicit or de facto English-only education policies (García & Kleifgen, 2018; Hinton, 2016). Similarly, while there has been a recent rise in the popularity of dual-language education programs in the nation as a whole (Lindholm-Leary, 2012), at the local level, it becomes clear that much of this growth results from the popularization of such programs among the white, monolingual students of the middle and upper class in what Valdez et al. (2016) dubbed the gentrification of Dual Language education (p. 601).

This is the paradox in which the so-called New Bilingualism has blossomed as a phenomenon of fascination in educational research and practice. To some observers, there appears to be a growing recognition of the limitations of monolingual language ideologies and a realization of the broader societal benefits of bilingualism. Certain policy changes seem to suggest an erosion of monolingual hegemony: English-only education laws dismantled in California (2016) and Massachusetts (2018); the rising popularity of dual-language programming (Boyle et al., 2015); and a growing number of states hastening to award biliteracy seals (Heineke & Davin, 2020). At the same time, questions of who benefits from these changes remain, particularly in terms of who is able to access to bilingual programming (Katznelson & Bernstein, 2017; Subtirelu et al., 2019; Valdez et al., 2016) and how the value of bilingual education can be recognized when the nations standardized tests continue to assess students exclusively in English (García & Kleifgen, 2018).

Even within the increasingly popularized dual-language program models, classroom-based research has documented such programs disproportionately catering to the needs of English-dominant student populations, often at the expense of bilingual youth of color (Valdés, 2018). As Cervantes-Soon et al. (2020) noted, In theory, [two-way immersion] integrates English speakers and speakers of a minoritized language to promote [dual-language] goals for all. In practice, language-minoritized youth are often treated as resources for white children (p. 2). Even students who had largely positive experiences in their dual-language programs recognize the racialized lens through which their bilingualism is perceived. As one Latinx graduate of a dual-language program said in regard to his earning of a biliteracy seal, [Everyone assumes] this is what you should have been doing anyway as a Mexican student, whereas white awardees would hear, Look at them. They went out of their way to learn another language and to be immersed in this culture. . . . Good for them (Colomer & Chang-Bacon, 2020, p. 385).

Framing Idealized Language Ideologies

Today, with popular research on the cognitive, social, and economic benefits of bilingualism (e.g., Bialystok, 2011), and educational institutions capitalizing on bilingualism as a recruitment strategy (Flores & García, 2017; Katznelson & Bernstein, 2017), it is possible to argue that the idealized language practice is no longer English monolingualism, but has shifted to idealize bilingualism. Again, if one views the notion of a New Bilingualism through an exclusive focus on past monolingual policies, there does indeed seem reason for cautious optimisma seeming transcendence of consistently restrictive language policies coming to a head in the modern day. However, through a framework that examines which language practices are idealized for which populations in regard to which institutional interests, the New Bilingualism is revealed as less of a transformation and more of a continuation. By examining who has access to the New Bilingualism (and for whom bilingualism is indeed new), much of the educational programming associated with the New Bilingualism appears to be designed in ways that disproportionally benefit monolingual English speakersmost often of the white middle class. Rather than being new, such privileging suggests that this New Bilingualism may be more accurately described as a resurgence of early colonial language policieswith bilingualism accommodated, celebrated, and constructed as a benefit for some. Framing these trends against a historical backdrop of a continent that has always been a site of contested multilingualism demonstrates the continuity with which idealized language ideologies have played a key role in shaping educational policies and practice, and who stands to benefit from them.


The framework of idealized language ideologies described throughout this article brings the notion of a New Bilingualism into conversation with the old monolingualism that it is supposed to supplant. The three components of this framework(1) idealized language practices, (2) the idealized speaker, and (3) institutional interestshelp explain why new, promising trends in bilingual education may continue to reproduce the old educational inequities that have impacted bilingual students, particularly students of color, for generations. When the production of these dynamics is brought to light across multiple periods of U.S. history, it becomes much less surprisingalmost predictablethat programming designed to benefit minoritized populations is appropriated to further advantage privileged populations. As demonstrated throughout this piece, educational policies and practices that overlook the dynamics of idealized language ideologies are all but guaranteed to disproportionately benefit some populations over others, often along existing lines of racial, educational, and economic privilege.

Although societal institutions and power dynamics continue to exert substantial influence on the reproduction of idealized language ideologies, what has not been discussed at length in this piece is the power of individual and collective agency in upholding or resisting idealized language ideologies (see Figure 2). The enduring vitality of multilingual language practices on the North American continent, as well as across the globe, cannot be explained entirely by dominant institutional interests. Instead, this continuity must also be credited to individual choices, community advocacy, and collective opposition to linguistic erasure and assimilationism (Irvine et al., 2009; Spring, 2016). In this way, while idealized language ideologies have major impacts on education and on broader U.S. society, these impacts are not inevitable. Teachers, communities, and individual students exercise power in deciding whether to accept, reproduce, or dismantle idealized language ideologies. Reckoning with the history through which these ideologies have been both maintained and resisted demonstrates the enduring importance of individual and collective agency.


Figure 2. Idealized language ideologies framework with individual and collective agency

As with other historical periods documented in this piece, education plays a key role in reinforcing or disrupting idealized language ideologies and the linguistic hierarchies produced therein. Thus, it is imperative that teachers, teacher educators, and educational policy makers bring awareness of these dynamics to discussions of language program models and how various language practices are valued in the classroom. For schools and districts seeking to implement the promising range of bilingual educational options available today or to reexamine existing programs and classroom practices, these discussions might highlight questions such as: (1) Who does our program aim to serve? (2) Who has access? (3) Whose language practices does our program idealize and why? (4) How might this idealization unintentionally reproduce institutional inequities, and how might we address this?

Such questions must examine how the New Bilingualism reinforces the historical production of idealized language ideologies, without forgetting the hard-won victories and well-intentioned struggles for broader recognition and valuation of linguistic diversity. This momentum must be maintained. However, the field must be cautious to prevent the notion of a New Bilingualism from simply reproducing the old educational inequalities. In this regard, educators and educational researchers have a key role to play in shaping these outcomes by challenging and disrupting idealized language ideologies across educational programming and practice.



For the purposes of this piece, I bound my analysis to the language dynamics of the United States and its specific historical context. Similar ideological dynamics play out in other nations, albeit in different ways, as mediated by a host of contextual factors. Though there is not space to address these global linguistic dynamics within this piece, further scholarship that explores how the language ideological dynamics I explore in U.S. contexts map onto other countries or contexts can provide important insights for our field.


Importantly, the -ized suffix marks this as a socially constructed, ideological practice rather than signifying any ideology, language practice, or individual as actually being ideal.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 1, 2021, p. 1-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23558, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:45:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Chris K. Chang-Bacon
    University of Virginia
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    CHRIS K. CHANG-BACON, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on equity, language policy, and teacher education in multilingual contexts. You can see more of Chang-Bacon’s research on language ideologies in the Journal of Teacher Education, Educational Policy, and Critical Studies in Education.
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