Dual Language Programs are a fantastic way to honor the linguistic backgrounds of our language minority students, but only the linguistic backgrounds of our language minority students who belong to the majority amongst our minorities. But what about our students who speak low-incidence languages? What about our students who are minorities amongst language-minority students?
I was once told by an educator that until every student from the high incidence groups received instruction in their home language, we should not venture into supporting our students who speak low-incidence languages… that it wasn’t fair to students who speak the high incidence languages to take attention away from their plight. While I am confident that this educator’s heart is in the right place as their hope is to make a larger splash, they couldn’t be further from the truth. At no time should we value one language-minority group over another, regardless of the size of the group. As a young high school student who speaks Turkish* asked me, “Why don’t we count just because a lot of people in our district don’t speak our language? Why can’t we learn our language too?”
I’m here to tell this student that she does count. I, a low-incidence language speaker, should have counted when I went to school, and my daughter, who spoke Tamil before she learned English, should also count, as should every language-minority student. Every student who has a home language other than English must receive our attention, and we must grow our programs for all language-minority students simultaneously. If we are to take our role as social justice warriors seriously, we cannot ignore low-incidence groups in favor of high-incidence groups. In fact, our job should be to protect the most minoritized and marginalized students, not just those whom it is easier to support.
There is ample evidence that demonstrates that when we respect students’ home languages, their sense of self and pride in one’s culture and heritage improves. On the other hand, I recently spoke to a parent who told me that her child did not care for their home language or culture because she thought Portuguese was more important than their home language because Portuguese was the dominant minority language in her environment. Clearly we want all students to have a sense of pride and belonging in their identities.
Of course, Dual Language programs, which are the best programs for language minority students, cannot accommodate a language that does not have a sizable number of speakers, so they do not work to support low-incidence languages; however, there are other options for languages less frequently spoken. Here are a few examples to consider:
- Seek support from the community. See if anyone in the community can work with the student(s) who speak the low incidence language. When I worked for a school district in Houston, I reached out to a Bengali restaurant in search of support for our sole Bengali speaker. The restaurant owners were able to connect us with a tutor who could help the student continue to grow her home language skills.
- Tap the skill set of parents. If there are at least a few students who speak the home language, see if any of the parents would like to teach the kids the home language after school. There are multiple language platforms with ready curriculums available that the school could purchase for the parent.
- Create a buddy system. If possible, pair an older student who speaks the language with a younger student. Through the buddy system, the older student can be a mentor of sorts with both language and navigating culture shock.
- Implement the Seal of Biliteracy and encourage your low incidence language speakers to participate. The Seal of Biliteracy can be a great motivator for students to preserve their language. Try to ensure resources such as books in the language and books that teach the language at the school library. Make language programs available for student use, and make sure parents know about these resources. You never know how far self motivated students and families could go.
- Create for-credit, virtual low incidence language courses. There are a number of accredited programs out there that offer synchronous and asynchronous language programs. Use these programs to create virtual opportunities for high school students that count as World Language credit bearing classes.
While building these programs for low-incidence speakers, keep strengthening and expanding your Dual Language programs. Keep expanding World Language offerings for high incidence language speakers. Just don’t forget your low-incidence language speakers on the way. We need to support all of our language-minority students, regardless of the language they speak.
*Language changed in order to protect the identity of the student.