English-Language Learners Commentary

Bilingual Students Need Support in Their Native Language

By Joe Levitan — May 12, 2015 5 min read

“La idea de no tener una lengua materna me preocupa. ¿Es como sentirte un nómada dentro de tu propia cabeza? No me puedo imaginar no tener palabras en las que refugiarme. Ser huérfana de lengua.”

“The idea of having no native language worries me. Would you feel like a nomad inside your own head? I cannot imagine having no words that are home. A language orphan.”

—Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone

A majority of the young people in schools where I have worked speak a different language at home than they do at school. In my work in Boston, New York City, and Baltimore, I have seen school policies respond to the bilingual abilities of young people as a strength, as a deficiency, or as something to be ignored.

When I was working at a middle school in Boston, I had a student named Samuel who had recently moved to the neighborhood from El Salvador. His status as an English-language learner required that he be pulled from class on a regular basis to learn English. A very confident and engaged learner and reader in Spanish, Sammy struggled to find his way in this new school. In the classes in which English was the medium of instruction, he had difficulty understanding content and instruction and started seeing himself as a “dumb” kid, instead of the bright student that he is. The school staff and the teachers were supportive, but all of their instruction, as dictated by state policy, was geared toward teaching him to be “proficient” in English, so that he could enter the English-only classroom.

This state policy is in alignment with the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s language policy, “to prepare limited-English-proficient children ... to enter all-English instruction settings.”

Samuel’s linguistic abilities in Spanish were not valued under this policy. (Massachusetts does have a waiver law to place students in a bilingual classroom, but the process is difficult, and schools and parents are often ill-equipped to secure the waiver.) So, Samuel’s fluency in Spanish was treated as a deficiency for his learning in English. Soon, he came to see his language abilities as a deficiency, too.

Without actively and continuously cultivating bilingual skills in bilingual students, we are limiting our nation’s language resources.”

Later in my career, I worked at a dual-language middle school in New York’s Bronx borough. This school taught many bilingual students, along with foreign-language Spanish-learners. In classes, we alternated the language of instruction weekly between English and Spanish. One of my students, James, was really proud of his bilingual abilities. He once told me that he felt smart because he was able to learn English and Spanish, and his mother was also teaching him Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico. His first language was Spanish, and, like Samuel, he had moved to the United States near the end of elementary school.

James thrived in this dual-language school. Although it took him some time to learn English, he was able to gain confidence by learning in Spanish while developing his skills in both that language and English. Eventually, he was able to speak, read, and write eloquently in both languages. In fact, from this public middle school in the South Bronx, James won a scholarship to a prestigious public high school. His favorite subjects are math and science.

Research demonstrates that the experiences of Samuel and James reflect important truths about learning and language. For educational researchers and psychologists, the development of a student’s first language is critical to his or her development of high proficiency in a second language. Last year, the researchers Jim Cummins and Merril Swain republished their influential book Bilingualism in Education, which gives an overview—and what they consider the general consensus—of linguistic research on learning. Developing both languages of a young bilingual child, they find from their analysis, is ideal for learning not only reading, writing, and verbal communications, but also other cognitive tasks.

Supporting ELL students’ first languages has other benefits. In a speech in February, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that foreign-language learning and the development of other skills not directly related to reading and math are “essentials, not luxuries” for public education. The contradiction here is stark: We have new Americans who already speak a “foreign language” that would provide the nation with greater international competitiveness in business and a useful edge in geopolitics, yet these students are hampered in developing those skills by state and national education policies. Without actively and continuously cultivating bilingual skills in bilingual students, we are limiting our nation’s language resources.

Although there are reasons for disagreement on language issues in policy debates, there are two important points that teachers and schools should consider when thinking about English-language learners:

Multiple language abilities are a resource for all students. Instead of viewing students who do not speak English as a first language as deficient, we should help students develop both first-language skills and English skills.

Learning is improved when students are able to build upon what they already know. Students who are learning English will learn that language better, along with other subjects, if they also learn in their first languages simultaneously.

As we, as a nation, discuss the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and as state legislatures work to improve the education of our youths, we should pay attention to the policies being proposed for English-language learners.

For Samuel, I know that his experience and learning outcomes in school would have been much better if state policy had allowed for continuous education in Spanish, instead of trying to push him into an English-only classroom. The school had the personnel resources needed, but was limited in what it could do because of policy. Policies that provide schools with the opportunities to do what is best for their students, including providing bilingual developmental instruction, are policies that allow teachers to make professional decisions based on research.

The way in which we feel and think is mediated by language. I know that no matter how fluent I am in Spanish, my deepest thinking happens in English (my first language). If I were not able to work from my strength in English and bring those skills to learning Spanish, I would not have been able to learn Spanish well, or quickly.

For Samuel, the pressure to get him into an English-only classroom took his innate intelligence and curiosity and made him a learning orphan. In the future, smarter language policies would make Samuel, and countless others like him, feel at home in either language.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Language-Learning Orphans Embracing Students’ Bilingual Abilities


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