A few years back, a principal vehemently argued with me that a student who had scored “approaching proficient” on her English language screener should not be classified as an English Learner (EL)*. According to this principal, the student, who was at the time entering Kindergarten, spoke English well and did not speak much Spanish. When I tried to explain the law, she retorted, “What if someone called your daughter an English Learner?” as if that label were the ultimate insult.
To her surprise, my child was an EL when she started Kindergarten. And even more to her surprise, I was and I still am proud of that fact. It’s hard enough to ensure that our second generation children keep their home language, so why wouldn’t I be proud that my third generation daughter spoke Tamil, our home language, when she started school and that she later added English to her linguistic repertoire? By speaking only Tamil at home, I had set my daughter upon a path where she could proudly connect to her linguistic identity. While I have faltered many times as a mother, ensuring her EL status is certainly not one of my numerous, parental fails.
So why is it that there are still people, educators in fact, who seem to look down upon students who are learning English at school? Why is it that there are still educators who think that it is less than when students speak their home language? I’ve even met educators who are upset when English proficient students use their home language at school because somehow they are “regressing.” And yet, English-speaking families flock to schools that will teach their children a second language. In fact, the same principal who used the term EL as some sort of affront against my child had her children attend Spanish language classes outside of their normal school day. Hence, while she found EL status a negative, she found nothing wrong with her children being “Spanish Learners” or “SL’s.” Somehow, in American society, the rare native English speakers learning a second language are beacons of intelligence, but speakers of other languages learning English are puddles of shame.
Even those of us who are bilingual somehow fall into the same trap. One parent who was completely proficient in both Spanish and English argued with me that she didn’t want her child tested for language proficiency. She told me, “My child is already a minority; I don’t need an additional strike against my child” as if bilingualism could ever be a strike against anyone. And she’s not alone in feeling this way even though speaking multiple languages (regardless of whether you learn English first, second, or tenth) has numerous research-based benefits from increased job prospects to cognitive benefits that can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. And for those of us whose identities are tied to our Language Other Than English (LOTE), the benefits are even greater. For instance, we know that students who are identified as English Learners and continue to become proficient in both languages do better in school than their monolingual, English-speaking peers. And even more importantly, students who maintain their home language have a connection – a belonging- with others from their communities who speak their home languages. They have the ability to affirm their identities and the ability to connect with family members who may not speak English. Speaking a LOTE is not a strike against us; it is the very fabric of our being.
We, as an educational system, need to work at valuing the great knowledge our English Learners possess. Those who are sequential bilinguals (students who learn one language first and then another) have at least a whole other language (if not more) behind them, and will someday add at least one more language to their linguistic repertoire. Those who are simultaneous bilinguals (or are learning both languages at the same time) have already embarked upon a journey of bilingualism that most Americans have never even stepped foot upon. I’m waiting for the day when our schools and our educators recognize how wonderful it is to be an EL and can see the term English Learner as a badge of honor. And until then, I’ll continue to be proud of myself, my daughter, my students, and every child who started school in the United States as English Learners. It’s great to be bilingual!
*I’m using the term English Learner here because this blog article references formal student identification, which federally continues to be EL. I prefer the asset-based term Emergent Bilingual.
What a beautifully written post! Thank you for sharing! I enjoy reading every post you write. The world needs more people like you!
Thank you, Emily, for your kind words. I appreciate you reading my posts as well.
“While I have faltered many times as a mother, ensuring her EL status is certainly not one of my numerous, parental fails.” As your daughter, I can confidently say that you have NOT failed AT ALL as a mother. You are amazing, kind, loving, and super talented, so that sentence is blatant misinformation. Love you!