Embracing Bilingualism in the Classroom: What Role Will You Play?

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The nerves kicked in when Papá pulled into the parking lot. This school was enormous; would I be able to make any friends? I was ready with new clothes and supplies, but I wasn’t prepared for what followed.

On my first day of 5th grade as a new student at a Florida public elementary school, I was pulled out of class to go to an English-as-a-second-language class. At that point, I was fluent in both English and Spanish, had tested into gifted classes, and was scoring in the 99th percentile on state assessments.

It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but now I’m aware that there weren’t that many students at my new school who looked like me. I experienced profiling because of my last name. Not due to any home language survey or test—just my last name. As a new student, I already felt like an outsider, and this made me doubt myself more.

Profiling happened then, it was happening before my time, and it continues to happen today. In fact, some may argue that profiling based on language, name, and race happens more frequently now than ever before. The current political climate and rhetoric have emboldened a faction of people who want to silence those who speak another language. Videos of people being told to “speak English” or that “there’s only one language here” go viral on social media all the time.

This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve heard the “America First” argument and its implied “English Only” counterpart. As a nation, we have a troubled history of dealing with bilingualism.

A Tense History of Bilingualism

The United States has often labeled itself a “nation of immigrants,” yet Americans have always had a tense relationship with other languages, often dictated by politics. We also tend to forget that many “immigrants” did not cross our borders, but rather that our U.S. borders crossed them.

Researchers Patricia Gándara and Kathy Escamilla write that by the 19th century, the United States had annexed land from Mexico and sovereign indigenous nations. While states such as Ohio and Louisiana had passed legislation supporting bilingual education in German and French, New Mexico was the only former Mexican territory to secure provisions for English-Spanish education. Indigenous languages received no such consideration and indigenous tribes were forced to give up their lands, culture, and language.

World War I halted German-language programs across the country. The post-war United States embraced “Americanization,” and English-only education became the law for many states.

Spanish-speaking students along the U.S.-Mexico border became subject to segregation and students were taught coursework only in English. School completion rates dropped drastically for these students, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights launched an investigation. In the commission’s report, one student noted, “Schools … try to make us forget our history, to be ashamed of being Mexican, of speaking Spanish.”

In 1959, the Cuban Revolution resulted in a mass migration of Cubans to Miami. Wealthier and more educated than their Mexican counterparts, this group of Spanish speakers demanded a more robust bilingual education system as they established businesses and elected Cubans to public office. Thus emerged the Coral Way School, which was created to meet the needs of Cuban children but also came to serve as a nationwide model of bilingual education.

In the 1990s, Cubans in Miami made strides in learning English while Haitian and Nicaraguan students fell behind, most likely because these groups were largely undocumented. English-learners still face similar political and cultural barriers. Teachers must be aware of how these factors affect their students’ learning.

Research shows that contextual factors like government policies and labor market conditions affect how well students learn English. As educators, we need to be careful not to reinforce rhetoric that stigmatizes immigrants and promotes an English-only culture.

English-Language Learning Today

With a today's increasing influx of English-language learners speaking Spanish, Kreyòl, and Vietnamese, among other languages, the rules of the game have changed.

Federal regulation, most recently with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, has pushed states to create formal structures for students to enter and exit ELL programs, as well as allow more flexibility in testing.

Still, ESSA failed to address the value of bilingualism, both for the English-learner and those fluent in English. Under ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, high-stakes testing pushed many school districts away from exploring bilingual models and often promoted English-only education. With the drafting of ESSA, policymakers had a chance to formally promote bilingualism and did not seize the opportunity.

Proof Points for Bilingualism Today

Today, 27 states offer a seal of biliteracy for high school graduates who demonstrate proficiency in English and a second language of their choice. Beginning July 1, California will implement Proposition 58, a referendum supported by 73 percent of voters, which will allow school districts to bring back bilingual and dual-language immersion programs.

Bilingual programs are here to stay. There is no denying the benefits. For English-learners, these programs create safe spaces for learning, allow children to experience academic success in their home language, and invite families to participate in their children’s education. For English speakers, bilingual programs provide opportunities to practice empathy and to experience greater inclusivity. Research also shows that these students outperform their English-speaking peers in monolingual programs.

What Role Will You Play?

ESSA paved the way for greater flexibility in accountability, but some of these positive changes could be done away with by the new administration. As educators, we have a responsibility to defend and promote bilingualism in our classrooms, school sites, and districts.

I urge you to stay informed on education policy and advocate for future changes that support bilingualism, rather than reverse the advances our schools have made.

Also, remember that it’s OK for students to use their native language at school—and if you find yourself stopping them, ask yourself why. I challenge you to check your implicit biases as students learn a new language. Many of these students are simultaneously learning a new culture and education system. They need you to meet them where they are.

Lastly, I hope that you will intentionally work toward making your classrooms a safe, equitable space for all students. It’s crucial for students to feel safe and capable of authentic self-expression at school, especially in a political climate where ELL students are consistently being told they don’t belong. That feeling of being singled out has never left me, and no student should feel this way at school. As educators, we should be aware of what all our students experience outside of school, so we can ensure our classrooms are spaces where they can learn, share, and grow freely.

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