The most contentious blunder to come out of the Super Bowl was not that first comic snap that arced past a bewildered Peyton Manning. It wasn’t the two tipped interceptions that followed that slip-up, or Joe Namath’s fur-coated Macklemore impression during the coin toss that preceded it.
It was the audacity of Coke’s claim that there are people in the world who speak languages that aren’t English, and that some of those people might love America.
The furor would be laughable if it didn’t have such damaging consequences for kids--not just English Learners, but native English speakers.
Teaching children a second language from a young age has multiple cognitive benefits. Apart from the advantages of the second language itself, bilingual kids can learn additional languages more easily than monolingual kids. They become better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers, in both their primary and second languages.
Given these benefits, it’s bewildering that 27 states, including my own, have declared themselves “English only.”
85% of the kids at my school are English Learners. Many of them come to kindergarten without speaking a word of English, yet by 2nd grade they’re fluently reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
The problem is that many of these kids lose their proficiency in their native language by the time they reach high school, especially when it comes to reading and writing.
Who cares? As long as they learn English, why does it matter? Here are three reasons--one economic, one academic, and one cultural.
1. Speaking a second language can give you a distinct advantage when the time comes to seek a job. In the Arkansas town where I teach, the number of Latino students climbed from 86 to 7,100 (41% of the student body) in 18 years. Given that demographic shift, a bilingual applicant for a job as a health professional, teacher, or secretary is a more desirable candidate than one who speaks only English. No matter where you live, the reality of a global economy gives multilingual candidates an advantage with most prospective employers.
2. Lower-income English Learners can sometimes gain college credit through AP classes in their first language. These credits matter--I skipped a semester’s tuition in college because of the 14 credits I had from high school AP courses, which saved me about $14,000 in tuition and living expenses.
3. Language is culture. Many of these kids have grandparents or other relatives who are not proficient in English. If they can’t communicate with them, they lose a link to their ancestry and their country of origin. Languages aren’t just a way of speaking, but a way of thinking and feeling about the world. To lose one marks a profound cultural loss.
What Can Teachers Do?
Elementary teachers get to spend more time with our students during the week than their own parents do. There’s a lot we can do to help them maintain fluency in their first language--even in an “English only” state.
1. Include books in the class library in languages your students speak.
This is easy for common languages like Spanish, and Amazon has books in dozens of other languages, too. My students check out two books a day--one to read at home, one for a family member to read to them. I make sure to stock the class library with books that parents of Spanish-speaking students can read. I also include bilingual books like Carmen Lomas Garza’s Cuadros de Familia/Family Pictures, so that parents can trade off reading the text in Spanish while their children read the lines in English.
2. Group students with other kids who speak the same language.
This is something to do on occasion, not every time your class works in groups, but it can be a tremendous boon to students to communicate in their first language. This is especially true for math and science lessons, in which a struggle with a foreign language can compound the difficulty in mastering the concept itself. For a student who primarily speaks a language other than English, working with peers fluent in both languages can help that child to master English more quickly, too.
3. Give students the option to read and write in their home language.
During Writer’s Workshop and Independent Reading, I encourage my students to sometimes write in Spanish. They can also incorporate dialogue in their first language when writing in English, as when my 2nd grader Lupita wrote this opening to a story for our class literary magazine: “My mom told me, “Buenas noches, mi hija. Sleep tight.”
Most of us believe that America’s strengths rest in large part on our diversity. Our history as a nation of immigrants has contributed to our ingenuity, our music (where else would Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chile Peppers share a stage?), even our dominance in sports.
Becoming bilingual is an opportunity our schools can provide to native English speakers and English Learners alike. But we first have to see our nation’s diversity as a strength, not a liability.
Adelante, siempre adelante. Onward, ever onward.
Let’s not fumble the ball.
The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.