Spanish Speaking in Schools

October 23, 2018

Although the United States has no official language, English is by far the most spoken language in the U.S. That being said, approximately 40 million people speak Spanish at home in the United States (United States Census Bureau, 2017). There is little legislation regarding the use of Spanish instruction outside of language classes, and with such a large percentage of the U.S. population speaking English, most schools instruct their students in English. Some schools, however, have made attempts to enforce “English-only” policies, which is where the problem lies. Teaching in English when a majority of students speak English is only logical, and even helps to immerse Spanish speakers or other language speakers in English promoting bilingualism. However, by enforcing English only policies, students who speak a language other than English are excluded and may have trouble keeping up with their English-speaking peers.
The topic of using Spanish in schools is very controversial. Some educators believe that speaking only English makes students easier to manage, and also helps them to learn English faster. Ignacio Sanchez, and English teacher at Rio Americano High School in California explains that his English-only policy “is not a punishment. It is a means for students to more quickly learn English” (Zehr, 2003). Some educators even claim that using a language other than English in the classroom can be a safety issue. A superintendent in Mesa reported an event where students speaking Spanish broke out into a fight over a sensitive news story, which she believes could have been prevented had the teacher understood the students’ conversation (Zehr, 2003). English-only policies may seem to be implemented for reasonable rationale, however some policies are implemented based on racial prejudice, and regardless of the ethicality of some of the previous reasons listed, policies based on racial prejudice are unacceptable. In 1998 former candidate for governor in California was motivated by the anti-immigrant culture of the time to lead a state-wide campaign for what was deemed “Preposition 227”. According to the Atlantic, Preposition 227 is “a highly controversial state initiative that required schools to teach language-minority students almost entirely in English” (Anderson, 2015). The vote passed in California, making it the first state to prohibit bilingual programs in schools. In 2015, reversal of this preposition began, yet this is not an isolated situation unique to California in the late 1990s.
In 2013, Hempstead Middle School principle in Texas told students over the loud-speaker that students were not allowed to speak Spanish. This was not only a challenge for the students, many of whom grew up speaking Spanish, but it scared them to speak their native language. On another occasion, fluent English-speaker Zach Rubio who knew Spanish, as it was his father’s first language, responded to another student’s favor by saying “No problema”. Because his school had a “No Spanish” rule, he was placed in a one-and-a-half-day suspension for the addition of one vowel (Mathews, 2013). Despite claims that enforcing English-only rules are productive to education, research shows that this is not the case. Students do not learn as well if they are in an environment where they feel uncomfortable, and in the case of Spanish-speaking Hempstead Middle Schoolers, scared to speak their native language. Though not specifically addressed in the constitution, Linguistics and Anthropology professor Shirley Brice Heath of Brown University suggests that the U.S. founders made “a deliberate choice of a policy not to have a policy” regarding language use in the U.S. (Crawford, 1990). In another case of language prejudice in the classroom, math teachers in Vineland High School, New Jersey made students sign a contract saying that any language other than English would not be tolerated in the classroom. This rule was overturned, calling on the precedent of the Supreme Court ruling that “students don’t give up their constitutional rights by entering a school building, and as such, teachers could not expect them to sign away these rights” (Mathews, 2013).
On the contrary to what many schools that implement these English-only policies claim, studies have shown that using Spanish in school even just to aid the understanding of Spanish-speaking students not only helps them to keep up in their academic standing with English-speaking students, but also helps them to learn English more quickly. Students are then able to focus on learning English without the stress of falling behind in other classes (Guerra, 2014). The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education explain that “Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), public schools must ensure that EL [English Learning] students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018). Phoenixville Area High School is one example of how high schools are integrating Spanish into normal class activities. The Chester County Pennsylvania has not only a strong ELL (English Language Learner) program with certified ELL teachers, but also encourages students studying Spanish to help in tutoring Spanish-speaking students. The opportunity for English-speaking students to tutor Spanish-speaking students using Spanish not only helped the English-speakers improve their Spanish language skills, but also helped the Spanish-speakers to improve in various classes. In addition to this informal tutoring opportunity, Phoenixville Area High School offered a math class for Spanish-speaking students, with a math teacher who knew minimal Spanish, however used his Spanish to teach the class. In past years, a Spanish Language student at the high school attended this class as a translator and assistant to the teacher. Through this integration, students who had been resistant to learning math began to excel through being taught in their native language. Some of the students even advanced to the level of helping instruct their peers in Spanish.
These results are not unique to Phoenixville. The approach of dual-language education has been shown to outperform traditional ELL programs. “Research shows two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skills, narrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates” (Anderson, 2015). Not only does instruction in both Spanish and English improve the success of Spanish-speaking students, but English-speaking students can improve their Spanish language skills. A study at Michigan State University of Texas elementary students found that in schools with dual-language programs English-speaking students scored higher in Math and Reading than those in schools without dual-language programs (Henion, 2013).
While schools with English-only education policies argue that using Spanish in schools is a distraction and impedes the ability of all students to learn, there is more evidence as to why using Spanish in schools is more beneficial to all students involved. Not only is it a constitutional right for students to be able to speak their native language, but doing so, and being instructed in that language helps them to improve not only their English, but other subjects as well. There is a lack of bilingual teachers in the United States, however many schools now encourage teachers to be bilingual.
With nearly 8,200 Spanish language programs offered at high schools in the United States (American Councils for International Education, 2017), students who speak English and are learning Spanish, and Spanish-speaking students who are learning English could greatly benefit from bilingual tutoring programs. Cuban writer and academic Humberto López Morales predicts that “the United States by 2050 will become the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and Spanish will be the second-most-spoken language on the planet, surpassed only by Chinese” (El País, 2011). If predictions such as these pan out, it will be essential to have an education system that is well equipped to handle both English-speaking students and Spanish-speaking students, and as of today, research shows that bilingual education programs and outside instruction in Spanish is the key to success.


  1. American Councils for International Education. (2017 Mar). "The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report". American Councils. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  2. Anderson, Melinda D. (2015 Nov 2). "The Costs of English-Only Education". The Atlantic. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  3. Crawford, James. (1990). "Language Freedom and Restriction: A Historical Approach to the Official Language Controversy". Effective Language Education Practices& Native Language Survival. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  4. El País. (2011 Feb 3). "U.S. Will Be Biggest Spanish-Speaking Country by 2050, Says Scholar". New America Media. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  5. Guerra, Jennifer. (2014 Dec 3). "Are "English-only" schools the best way to learn? New research says no". State of Opportunity Michigan Radio. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  6. Henion, Andy, Imberman, Scott. (2013 Sept 10). "Bilingual Education has Spillover Effect". MSU Today. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  7. Mathews, Kevin. (2013 Dec 7). "5 Schools That Tried to Ban Speaking Spanish". Care 2. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  8. United States Census Bureau. (2017 Aug 31). "Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2017". United States Census. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  9. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. (2018). "Ensuring English Learner Students Can Participate Meaningfully and Equally in Educational Programs". U.S. Education. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.
  10. Zehr, Mary Ann. (2003 Oct 29). "Classroom Ban on Spanish Protested". Education Week. Retrieved Tuesday, October 9, 2018.

About Author(s)

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Rachel Bierly
Rachel Bierly is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Linguistics as well as pursuing a minor in Computer Science and a certificate in Latin American Studies. Though her focus lies in Latin American languages, culture, and politics, she also finds interest in East and Southeast Asian culture, and is studying both the Chinese language. Rachel's interest in Latin America comes mainly from working as an intern in Phoenixville Area School District's English Language Learner (ELL) program as well as travelling to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.