Native Speaker Required

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the USA was a country very rich in language diversity up until the 1800s. Tolerance was the word of the day. But in 1911 something drastic happened. The Federal Immigration Commission falsely reported that while the “old Scandinavian and German immigrants” had quickly assimilated, the “new Italian and Eastern European immigrants” were inferior, less willing to learn English, and more prone to political subversion.

In order to Americanize the immigrants and exclude people thought to be of the lower classes (undesirable), English literacy requirements were established for public employment, naturalization, immigration and voting. One million Yiddish-speaking citizens lost their right to vote when New York amended its voting laws to require English. In California, the same thing happened to the Chinese.

Native American Indian children were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their native language. The goal was to Americanize the children…

And then along comes World War I with Germany…

In 1918, Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “English should be the only language taught or used in the public schools. We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language”.

In 1918, the state of Iowa outlawed the use of all foreign languages in schools.

Texas went one step further. In 1918, Texas made teaching in Spanish a crime.

In 1919, the state of Nebraska passed a law prohibiting the use of any other language than English through the eighth grade (8th).

In 1921, “English Only” education was approved for all public schools in Louisiana.

Dear reader, do you notice a trend here? Is a pattern beginning to develop?

This isn’t rocket science. The Berlitz “Native Speaker Myth” had found a perfect ally in the political climate regarding language instruction only in English. “English Only” and the Myth of the Native Speaker as the best teacher, had a perfect marriage, each one benefitting from the other.

During this time period, from 1900 to 1921, a teacher of English, monolingual, with a multilingual class, would have felt it was his civic and patriotic duty to enforce an English only policy in the classroom.

Here are some quotes taken from textbooks of the era:

1904 – Harrington and Cunningham, in “First Book for Non-English-Speaking People”: “English is learned by using it in the classroom”.

1909 – Sara R. O’Brien, in “English for Foreigners”: “English should always be the language of the classroom”.

1919 – Dr. Henry H. Goldberger, in “Teaching English to the Foreign Born”: “…teach English by using English as the means of instruction”.

1919 – John Almack, in “Americanization: A Suggested Outline For Teachers of Aliens”: “The psychological moment is at hand to make our mother tongue (English) the universal language.”

Finally, let’s point out that it would have been impossible to be fluent in all the languages of the immigrants. The mindset was, “these immigrants have to understand me, and try to talk like me, if they want to have any chance of improving themselves economically, socially, and culturally”.

To conclude, there can be no doubt that the Native Speaker Myth was by now deeply entrenched as an ideological principle. It seemed unlikely that the Myth would keep growing any deeper in the minds of the world.

Incredibly, the Myth continued to grow even deeper, thanks to the 1961 Makerere Conference and a linguist named Noam Chomsky. This will be the subject of our next post.

Thanks for stopping by to read my friend. See you tomorrow with another piece of the puzzle, why we have come to accept the Native Speaker Myth so thoroughly…

Thomas Baker
Native Speaker
Teacher of English as a Foreign Language
Santiago, Chile

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Education, EFL, Human Rights For NNEST ELT Teachers, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you kindly for your generous comments, and for watching the video also. I am grateful for your sharing your time to let me know how you feel about this issue. I greatly appreciate your taking the time to be interested in the Native Speaker Myth.

    As I read your post, it is clear to me that we both believe that language can be used fairly and equitably to benefit everyone. I do point out that this post aims not to question a nation’s right to impose a national language policy.

    Rather, it aims to contextualize the evolution of the Native Speaker Myth by placing it in a historical context. In this case, the period from 1900 to 1921 was of particular interest to me. No judgement is passed, as I aimed for a deeper understanding of how we came to be where we are today in terms of the almost universal acceptance of the Native Speaker Myth.

    Elizabeth, again, I am most appreciative of your patronage of this blog, and look forward to entertaining your comments in the future.

    Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s