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Tradition, Culture, and Language in History: Impact on Learning

As we navigate various instructional models, we aim to keep our students engaged along the way. A key factor of motivation for learners is relevance. There are many opportunities to make learning experiences relevant by drawing connections between traditions, culture, and language throughout the learning. Dive into some lessons in history from our Curriculum and Staff Developer, Leonard Shurin. As you read, consider the connections you can make in your classroom.

Short Summary of Part I

The Revolutionary War (1775-83) was an insurrection by American loyalists to Great Britain’s colonial rule of the 13 original states, resulting in Independence. Using new tactics of diversity in languages, cultures, religions, warfare, and the skills of both men and women, the 13 former colonies won their fragile Independence with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. It is very important to note here that the Treaty recognized the Independence of the 13 states and not a “United States”.

The Treaty of Paris officially ended The American Revolution. Please note, historians disagree about what was written in the Treaty of Paris. Representatives of the Thirteen States, Great Britain, Spain, France, and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. Details were written in four separate languages, with five separate cultures involved, setting the stage for misinterpretations and misunderstandings; and like any Treaty, essentially a political agreement.

The Thirteen States were closely linked to Great Britain (and Canada), despite the Revolution, by tradition, culture, language, family ties, and overwhelmingly, the economic advantage of trade and business with the British Empire, including Canada. This economic situation led to the dominance of English as the language of the United States and its expansion. Land and access to “The New World” were shared as follows; again, a simplification of the Treaty:

  • Great Britain: Canada.

  • Spain: Florida.

  • France: land west beyond the Mississippi River.

  • Netherlands: numerous rights, such as navigation on the Mississippi River.

  • Mexico: although not a signer to the Treaty, its territorial claims were not challenged.

However, obstacles for France, the Netherlands, and Spain arose out of the Treaty (and soon for Mexico as well). Unlike Great Britain, these countries actually had little or no relationship to the emerging United States. English language, culture, and values dominated the lands and rivers west and south of the expanding United States. The signers of the 1783 Treaty soon realized the futility of trying to claim ownership of the land where essentially they had little or no established people, language, culture. (Stunningly, “rights” to land settled for 15,000 years or longer by American Natives were not even considered.

Eventually, the Treaty of Paris would be the basis for worldwide corollaries that determined the future of all the lands, seas, nations, and wars on the planet from this point in time, with very few exceptions. History is replete with examples.

  • Nations that share a common language and culture do not make war on each other, and in fact, become allies in a conflict.

  • Nations that persecute or defile their precious resources of diversity, languages, cultures, ethnicities, and religions, and enter into conflicts/wars with nations that respect and utilize those resources, lose those conflicts/wars.

  • Possession is nine-tenths of the law; that is, ownership is easier to maintain if one has possession of land, through history and population. Unfortunately, this corollary often failed Native populations.

The Beginning of American Isolationism and its Effect on Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Diversity Prior to World War II

“Isolationism”, generally, is a government policy or doctrine of taking no role in the affairs of other nations. As the United States expanded, Isolationism became an unwritten policy, with an especially unusual aspect of keen awareness and fear of other languages cultures, and religions. Quickly either forgotten or discounted was the diversity of languages, cultures, and people who helped establish the United States. Not all Americans believed in Isolationism, of course, and its unique aspects in the U.S., but generally, the Isolationists won out. The roots of Isolationism evolved from the colonial period.

George Washington favored Isolationism, and this led to the U.S. officially dissolving its alliance with France. This created a closer relationship with Great Britain. There was no opposition to dissolving the Alliance. Source: However, Isolationism and Expansionism soon developed issues.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law”, a law actually applied by the U.S. in its Expansion and by many states. The adage is derived from Scottish and British law, going back centuries, even to Roman law as a legal basis. The United States expanded, quickly settling and populating all the land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in North America; to the north, a treaty with Canada fixed the boundary; to the southwest and west, Mexico claimed enormous land ownership (without population). Immigrants to the U.S. gladly filled the void in those areas, and winning the war with Mexico in 1846 settled the land issue politically, and served as a warning to France, Spain, the Netherlands, and any other nation to “keep out”.

Despite championing Expansionism (not to be confused with Nationalism) by inviting immigrants from virtually every country in the world (see map) to populate and build the U.S. (see map below), concerns quickly developed for people long established in the U.S. Concern became fear that immigrants would not be able to assimilate and be “Americans” due to so much diversity. At worst, the U.S. would collapse culturally, economically, and politically. This, despite immigrants bringing new and fresh ideas, knowledge, beliefs, religions, languages, ethnicities, and cultures: and they were invited to come to the U.S. The fears turned to prejudice and intolerance for many already established. Federal and state courts ruled on these fears reaching back to 1798. Just a few of the more iconic laws and actions are below.

  • Plessy v. Ferguson Although this U.S. Supreme Court decision was related to the segregation of African American students, in many parts of the country, Native American, Asian, Hispanic students, and other minorities were also routinely segregated from “white-only” schools, businesses, transportation, employment, and much more.

  • In Independent School District v. Salvatierra (1930) Mexican American parents in the small border town of Rio, Texas, brought suit against the school district over segregation. The court sided with the school district that argued: “segregation was necessary to teach the students English”. Spanish-speaking students reported instances of physical and mental abuse if they spoke Spanish in school or on school grounds instead of English.

  • Siman Act In 1919, Nebraska passed the Siman Act, which made it illegal for any school, public or private, to provide any foreign language instruction to students below the 8th grade. This law had a far-reaching effect across the entire U.S., and other states passed similar laws. (This is why, even today, many school districts across the U.S. do not permit foreign language study until grade 8.)

  • Xenophobia: fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners, their culture, religion, and/or language Xenophobia toward German, Hungarian, Austrian, and Turkish Americans during World War I; and Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II succeeded where attempts at language restrictive legislation failed. The study of Japanese, German, and Italian in schools during these periods was greatly reduced or eliminated in the U.S. How many schools teach these languages, even today?

After December 7, 1941, the start of WWII for the U.S., using the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts and U.S. Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered detainment and internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans (including German Jews), and Italian Americans. These Americans, their cultures, and languages were deemed “Foreign Enemy Ancestry.” Unfortunately for many of these people, they had immigrated to the U.S. to escape persecution from the countries they fled! Many Americans deeply disagreed with these policies, of course, knowing that diversity made us a great nation, but had to stand by helplessly. Contact Leonard ( if you would like more information about the connections between language learning, history, and your classroom.


Leonard J. Shurin, M.Ed. is an ESL Program Specialist and Curriculum and Staff Developer for Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8. Leonard is passionate about language skills and development. He works hard to strengthen language instruction and advocate for language learners.

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