The Status of English
I stayed at home with my daughter for the first five years of her life, largely because I wanted to ensure that she would speak our mother tongue, Tamil. I feared that sending her to daycare would introduce her to English way too early. Nevertheless, once she started school, even when it was still easier for her to speak in Tamil than in English, she quickly began speaking in English and didn’t want others to know that she even spoke another language. Although I had valued our language enough to make it the only language she would speak for the first few years of her life, she quickly gathered from society that English was the language of status, the language of power.
The majority of our Emergent Bilingual students fall prey to the same issue; they learn early in their educational careers that English, rather than their home languages, holds power and status. This is the case even in our Dual Language classes, where we spend at least 50% of our time teaching in the Language Other Than English (LOTE). By the time students come to middle school, we find that many of them stop speaking in The Language Other Than English even if they entered the program speaking the LOTE fluently.
Unfortunately, in the United States, English does have status and being bilingual, although an exceptional skill that provides students not only cultural opportunities but financial and health benefits, is still considered a handicap rather than a gift. Because there is an implicit bias against Emergent Bilingual students, students quickly internalize the prejudices against them and move away from speaking their home languages.
Strategies to Elevate the Status of the Home Language
There are many strategies that we can use to elevate the status of the home language whether we have a Dual Language program or not. Here are a few:
- Ensure that bulletin boards are displayed in languages spoken by your students, including the target language of the Dual Language Program if one exists at your school. This should be done not only in the hallways where programs for multilingual learners are held but throughout the school.
- When the majority of teachers are bilingual, hold meetings in the Language Other Than English. Use language acquisition strategies for teachers who do not speak the language just as you would for students who don’t speak the language of instruction.
- When providing families live translations, start with the Language Other Than English and translate into English rather than the other way around. Same when the translation is in print. Write in the Language Other Than English first and then, follow it with the English translation.
- Put up signs throughout your schools praising bilingualism. For instance, in my old district, we put up signs in every school that read, ” Bilingualism is my superpower,” in both Spanish and English. Use these signs as starting points for conversations.
- Allow new arrivals into your Dual Language programs at upper grades so that they can infuse the Language Other Than English back into the program.
- The most important strategy to elevate the status of Languages Other Than English, however, is to have direct conversations with students about the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism.
The most important strategy to elevate the status of Languages Other Than English, however, is to have direct conversations with students about the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism.
Conversations About Being Bilingual and Multilingual
This past week, I saw the power of having conversations with our students about their bilingual identity. When schools reopened, I went into English-only classrooms and asked kids if they spoke Languages Other Than English at home. In each class, at first, a few kids would hesitantly raise their hands and tell me that they did. Whenever I could, I would then speak to them in their home languages, soliciting wide eyes and pure excitement. When I couldn’t speak in their home languages, I would ask them to teach me a greeting. Regardless of my linguistic prowess or lack thereof, I would then tell each child individually but in front of their classmates that their home language made them special and to never give it up.
What happened when I had those conversations was amazing. Suddenly, many more kids would enthusiastically reveal their own home languages. The hesitancy was gone. There was a transformation amongst the kids who had home Languages Other Than English. They were no longer English Language Learners in their classrooms. Now, they were Emergent Bilinguals. And for at least that moment, they held the status in their classrooms.
Whether we are teaching in a Dual Language classroom or we happen to have Emergent Bilinguals in our English-only classrooms, these conversations are important to have not just once but repeatedly. We have to let our students know that being multilingual makes them special, that they should never give it up. My daughter is 10 today, and this is a conversation we still have about once a week if not more often. As adults, we need to build our students’ bilingual and multilingual identities and intentionally, elevate the status of Languages Other Than English.
When we don’t have these conversations with our students, society will. And our students are doomed to internalize the implicit bias against them that exists in the monolingual society that surrounds them.
Have you had a conversation about multilingualism with your students or with your own kids? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below.