It’s All about Class, a guest post by Laura Payne

Laura Payne is a senior at Southern Oregon University, majoring in English Education, minoring in creative writing, and studying Japanese independently.

It’s All about Class: The Americanization Movement’s English Education

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cultivated a boom in English as a second language teaching methods throughout the United States. Various institutions hoped that the learning of a single language and ideology would promote a sense of unity and national identity among the country’s increasingly diverse population. However, the methods employed to teach non-native English speakers at this time defined the English language not simply as a form of communication, but as a tool for imperialism and a justification for extreme nativism. At this point in history, the Americanization Movement transformed English education and the language itself into a controversy that helped to shape ethics in language education.

Education, like any tool, garners different connotations depending on its vision and use. According to author, Tim William Machan, English education “has been among the most consequential and controversial of the domains that define English in the language’s original and expanding homelands” (Machan 213). This statement especially applies to the education of Native American children during the Americanization Movement because the reasons behind their English education transcended straightforward language learning. For Native American students, mastery of English defined their level of civilization in the eyes of the United States (235). In 1880, the Board of Indian Commissioners asked, “If the common school is the glory and boast of our American civilization, why not extend its blessings to the 50,000 benighted children of the red men of our country that they…may…speedily emerge from the ignorance of centuries?” (222). Additionally, after an 1887 report mandated that English be the only language spoken in Native American boarding schools, Commissioner John Atkins commented that learning English was the first step towards “teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing their barbarous practices” (224). In other words, a Native American child speaking their own language in the late nineteenth century was associated with inferiority and savagery because this was how white Americans in the late nineteenth century viewed Native culture. However, because white Americans spoke English and viewed themselves as civilized, they reasoned that an ability to speak English was a marker of a civilized person.

Attitudes similar to those towards educating Native American children in English persisted in the education of immigrant children. Immigrants newly arrived to big cities were often stuck in low-paying jobs that offered little chance for social advancement and lived in poor, linguistically isolated neighborhoods where exposure to English was rare (Machan 242-243). As a consequence, early twentieth century Americans judged immigrants’ living standards and language ability as indicators of flawed character and genetic inferiority rather than results of various social structures (242-243). Therefore, teaching American ideologies and the English language to both adults and children was considered a patriotic duty because it would protect the United States’ supposed “purity” (Kraver) and prevent immigrants from changing the United States (Kraver). The main goal of immigrant education at the turn of the century was homogeneity; specifically a homogeneity based around the values of the Protestant Anglo-Saxon middle class (Kraver).

However, despite its widely acknowledged importance, English as a second language teaching methods severely lacked the innovation necessary to fully grant students a mastery of English. In some cases, teachers in ESL programs were not career teachers but housewives, factory mechanics, and other U.S. citizens who became ESL teachers to fulfill what was considered a patriotic duty. Also, teachers in ESL programs, especially those meant for immigrants, were discouraged from developing their own lesson plans and pedagogy in favor of subscribing to scripted, standardized lesson plans (Ray 15-16). A series of ESL teaching manuals published in the early twentieth century required teachers to recite lesson plans scripted “down to the sentence” (22). Classes scripted through such manuals might assume a teacher’s inexperience and dictate a lesson consisting of no more than ten different sentences with accompanying body language. For example, a lesson plan might instruct a teacher to say, “I walk to the door,” and “I turn the knob,” while performing the action the sentence refers to (24). One manual in particular only encouraged teachers to adapt their lessons to their students’ needs towards the end of ten different units (24-25). Linguists and historians speculate that, while intentions may have been good, the effect of lessons such as these were created to the end that students could perform domestic and technical duties while largely remaining in subservient social positions.

Indian boarding schools especially demonstrate language education that ultimately ensured students would remain subservient. For example, one grammar written specifically for the teaching of Native students emphasized vocabulary more than syntax or any other aspect of English. Also, boarding school English lessons at large relied heavily on rote memorization and recitation. While such methods can help to improve the English of a student who is already familiar with the language, evidence suggests that Native students who were completely unfamiliar with English developed gaps in their knowledge because of their schooling. Several late nineteenth century students of Indian boarding schools have been quoted writing letters with sentences such as, “I suppose you think I ought very good English speak by this time, but I cannot very well yet. I know a great many words, but not how together to put them,” (Machan 230). In addition, while standard American common schools at the time centered English lessons around topics such as civic duty and morality, Indian boarding school lessons tended to focus more heavily on manual labor (236). A spelling lesson for a first grade girl, for example, consisted of words such as, “clothes, soak, wash, rinse, tubs, iron,” and “starch,” (237). Ultimately, though, the greatest disservice done to Native students through boarding school English lessons was the isolation they suffered after leaving school. In some areas, the only people students knew who they could speak English with were teachers from boarding schools and other students (237). As Machan writes, this invited students to “join a group that didn’t exist” (237) and marginalized them when the purpose of their education had been a promise for elevation. In the case of Indian boarding schools, English was a marker of isolation rather than civilization.

In contrast to the effects of the Indian boarding schools, the Americanization of immigrant children and their families through English was somewhat successful because immigrant communities were allowed to participate in their own education. Whereas Native children were forced to leave home and attend segregated boarding schools, immigrants in large cities had slightly more options; particularly where the education of adults was concerned. In 1890, college-educated middle class Protestant reformers helped to establish settlement houses; facilities in poorer immigrant communities that attempted to bridge the gap between immigrants and the larger society through education (Salomone 28-29). Granted, settlement house education possessed flaws such as patronizing lessons that reminded adult students, “In America “We sit down at the table. We take our napkins. We eat slowly,” (Kraver). However, from a linguistics perspective, the fact that settlement houses offered certain classes specifically for adult women greatly increased the likelihood that immigrant children and the immigrant community at large would eventually master English.

According to Robert MacNeil and William Cran in their book, Do You Speak American?, when and how a language changes is driven by women. MacNeil and Cran write, “Young women are always alert to novelty in fashion, but certain young women are willing to embrace it sooner, and some have the natural authority to induce others to follow,” (Cran, MacNeil, 42). In other words, because women are more likely than men to be aware of and accept social trends, they are the most likely candidates to be the first to expand a trend to other people; especially if a woman is in a position of some influence. For example, mothers have a position of influence over their families. Reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century feared it would be impossible to fully educate immigrant children in American customs and language “if in the evening they returned to an ethnically isolated community and a home where the heard no English,” (Salomone, 28). Providing classes for women in settlement houses theoretically puts the immigrant community in a better position to learn English as a whole because influential women learning English will impart the language to others outside of ESL classes.

In addition to success through including influential women in the Americanization process, immigrant communities found success in Americanization by participating in the process as communities. In her book, True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children, Rosemary C. Salomone writes, “Immigrant middle-class organizers…established community centers staffed by foreign-born social workers and educators. The idea was that those who shared the immigrants’ language and culture could best be entrusted with brokering and implementing…assimilation,” (29). In other words, even though immigrants were forced to assimilate in custom and language to survive in the United States, the construction of exclusive community centers allowed them to dictate the best methods for assimilation while maintaining their ethnic identities. Whereas Native students in boarding schools became physically and linguistically isolated from their communities, immigrant communities were allowed to grow stronger together both in English and their unique ethnic identities.

It is difficult to draw ethical lines around the enforcement of language education. Often, language is a tool for enforcing a colonizing power and the best-intended pedagogies for language education may strongly perpetuate the oppression of a people. However, based on the history of immigrant and Native American education in English, it appears methods exist in which communities of people truly can be elevated through language education rather than suppressed. The history of the Americanization Movement stands as a lesson that in order to effectively integrate a community through language, that community must have its own agency; agent powers must allow target groups their own spaces and their own decisions in language learning. Only then can language define itself as a uniting force.

Works Cited

    Cran, William and MacNeil, Robert. “Changing Dialects: Dingbatters Versus Hoi-Toiders.”Do You Speak American? Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, 2005. 40-43. Print.

    Kraver, Jeraldine R. “Restocking the Melting Pot: Americanization as CulturalImperialism.”Race, Gender & Class; New Orleans 6.4 (1999): n. pag. Race,Gender & Class, 31 Oct. 1999. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

    Machan, Tim William. “English in the Classroom I and II.” What Is English?: And Why Should We Care? Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 212-68. Print.

    Ray, Brian. “ESL Droids: Teacher Training and the Americanization Movement, 1919-1924.”Composition Studies 41.2 (2013): 15-39. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

    Salomone, Rosemary C. “Education for Americanization.” True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 2010. 23-30. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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