The Bilingual Panic: A Look Into the Past

bilingual official englishA major fear that some may have regarding immigration, especially with removing immigration restrictions and creating more legal pathways, is that today’s immigrants have no desire to assimilate, in particular linguistically. The focal point for this fear is the Spanish language. Misconceptions about the rate of linguistic assimilation among Latin American immigrants and their kids create an environment where immigration and Latin immigration in particular is highly suspect due to fears of linguistic enclaves, balkanization and even cultural colonization. Michael Coley in The Citizen serves as a prime example of these fears when he opines,

“In the past…immigrants had no choice but to learn English to function in American society. But these pockets…have grown so numerous that entire areas are now strictly Spanish-speaking. There is no longer an eagerness or willingness to learn English and transition into American society. And why should they, when all the radio and TV stations, newspapers, government services are in Spanish? Bilingualism …creates a Tower of Babel for neighbors, a neighborhood, city, county, state and a nation. An entire shopping mall area, once called Sharps Town Mall, is now called PlazAmericas and all the outside signs and advertisements and stores are in Spanish. I can see this happening to the Pavilion in 20 years, being renamed La Pavilion.”

Central to this (misguided) fear is that the (also misguided) push bilingual education proves that today’s immigrants have no desire to assimilate and may even be disloyal to the United States due to their retention of Spanish.

The irony? We’ve done this before. The bilingual panic over immigrant children and first generation Americans maintaining their origin language was a commonplace discussion in the Pacific states of America. Whereas now it is Latin immigrants who are the target of nativist ire, then it was Japanese immigrants and their children.

bilingual Different faces, same struggles

Different faces, same struggles

During the political and economic upheavals that took place in Japan during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, thousands of Japanese workers came to the western coast of the United States and to the then-Kingdom of Hawaii in the second half the nineteenth century (after 1893, Japanese immigrants soon found themselves in the American territory of Hawaii instead). Between 1885 and 1911, nearly half a million Japanese found themselves moving to the US. Like their later Latino counterparts, these immigrants became the largest minority in their respective areas and by 1920, 43% of Hawaii were either Japanese immigrants or their descendants. Also like their later counterparts from Latin America, they were often the target of heavy restriction after 1924.

During this time, Japanese language schools began to be set up in Hawaii, California, Washington and Oregon. They were started with different motivations. Some felt that it would be helpful to make sure that Issei and Nisei (immigrants and first generation Americans) children would be better served to be fluent in Japanese in the event they returned to Japan. Others, such as sugar plantation owners, thought it would provide helpful childcare for their workers. Even internal dissensions within the Japanese community spurred on language schools, alternatively as a way to either Christianize Japanese-Americans or maintain Buddhist traditions. After Reverend Shigefusa Kanda set up Honolulu Nihonjin Shōgakkō , the first Japanese primary school, by 1920, 98% of all Japanese American children were educated in such schools.

However starting in the 1920s, anti-Japanese sentiment boiled over into the Japanese primary education system. Kazue Masuyama explains,

However, in the 1910s, this kokugo (mother tongue) education began to be criticized because it focused on raising loyalty to Japan among the nisei generation, who were U.S. citizens.

This was not to be the last time that immigrants’ loyalty to the US was questioned due to the existence of bilingual education. Local legislatures in California and Hawaii began passing taxes specifically targeting the start up and maintenance of Japanese schools. In fact, according to Noriko Asato, in her work Teaching Mikadoism: The Attack on Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii, California, and Washington, 1919-1927, the schools were labeled as anti-American and an attempt on the part of Japan to colonize the United States.

These reached a fever pitch during the Second World War as members of the community who had taught or given financial support to these schools were “classed as dangerous” according to Eric Muller in his book American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in WWII.

But how socially destabilizing were these schools to begin with? Did they really ever pose a threat to the primacy of American English as our main means of communication between the members of our nation? Did it really pose a threat of balkanization?

In reality, the market factors meant that English was never going to be supplanted by Japanese any day soon. Bill Hosokawa in Nisei: The Quiet Americans, noted that like many immigrant children, “…many Nisei resented the time they had to devote to Japanese language school as well as the discipline they had to endure.”

In fact when hostilities with Japan arose a survey of children who had attended these schools found that only 3% were fluent and another 4% were proficient. Even still, in order to raise a new crop of linguists who could aid the war effort, the US Navy found itself relying on the old Japanese primary school system. The Densho Encyclopedia concludes,

The vast majority of Nisei seemed more American than Japanese and were less fluent in Japanese than previously believed. These findings not only seemed to indicate the success of Americanization campaigns, but also that American fears of Japanese espionage that were used to justify the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans were unfounded.

In reality, our immigration struggles are not very new at all. Concerns about the effect of imposed bilingual education on non-English speaking children are valid. However too often these concerns are hyped into absurd paranoid theories about how we face a cultural “invasion” or how “these people” have no wish to be American. The now almost forgotten Japanese school controversy proves that these fears are as long standing as they are unfounded. Immigrants, as usual, always prove the nativists wrong.


Joseph Laughon is a lifelong Republican and a proud Mexican-American. He was a campaign consultant to Martha Flores-Gibson in 2012 and was both the Vice Chairman of the College Republicans at Concordia University and the President of Nuestra Voz. He lives and writes in Buena Park, California.

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