A few weeks ago, at a central Los Angeles after-school homework club full of students who were bilingual in Spanish and English, I asked a young girl I was working with if she spoke Spanish. "¿Hablas español?” She responded casually, “No, pero mi mamá habla español.” No, but my mom speaks Spanish. Amused by the response, I reflected on my instinct to classify her language in to separate categories in the first place. We as students and teachers internalize an instinct to classify language as either/or: as English or Spanish, as good or bad, as correct or poor form. These classifications end up reinforcing deficit views of students who aren’t monolingual, middle-class English speakers.
It is impossible to avoid the insidious narratives about the language deficiencies of students who have been “minoritized"—or pushed to a subordinate position by social expectations. From catchy news articles, to research rooted firmly in monolingual, middle-class practices, these narratives are hard to escape. In fact, whenever I meet someone new, and they learn that I was a teacher, two talking points never fail to come up: the tragedies of the word gap and the failure of certain students to learn academic language.
But these tragedies are fabricated. The researchers of the 1995 study that introduced the “crisis” of the word gap claimed that children from low-income households were entering school with 30 million fewer words than their more economically advantaged peers. This conclusion has come under fire in recent years both from activists who criticize the study’s impact on policymakers and from researchers who question its methodology and cultural biases. In fact, later studies failed to reproduce the so-called word gap.
These two manufactured dilemmas attempt to strictly demarcate language boundaries.
Validity aside, this and similar studies also make implicit judgments about the value of certain ways of speaking and writing that are rooted in monolingual ideals. The “dilemma” of students learning academic language—the language used in textbooks or on standardized tests—then permeates instruction and evaluation. Such a narrow focus discounts the huge variety of language skills needed for communication and success, and limits students’ learning opportunities.
These two manufactured dilemmas attempt to strictly demarcate language boundaries. The titles we give to languages (e.g. standard, academic, slang, formal, etc.) imply the worth of the language being labeled, but the hierarchies that result are not objective.
In fact, students who are bi- or multilingual effectively engage in complex language practices every day. But, because their practices don’t fit into our monolingual models of language, we neglect to recognize it.
Even as appreciation for bilingualism grows in our schools, that appreciation is not equal. The bilingualism of students from monolingual backgrounds is celebrated, while the bilingualism of other students is treated as a problem to be “fixed.”
Take the girl in homework club as an example. I watched her move deftly between making a plan with her mother in Spanish, completing her homework in English, and engaging with her peers in two languages. She demonstrated her linguistic knowledge and social dexterity throughout the afternoon, but will her teachers recognize the talent she has?
As educators, we’re especially attuned to the labeling and categorization of language. With honest intentions, we take up what we’re taught in our teacher preparation: that language can be standardized. Unfortunately, what results is the denial of deeper-learning opportunities for our students as we judge them to be not proficient in any language when, in reality, they are just not practicing the language we find valuable.
This is not new in education. My father and his nine siblings were prohibited from developing their Spanish-English bilingualism in school. After they were disciplined multiple times for speaking Spanish in school, my grandparents were forced to be complicit in the erasure of their language.
Their teachers didn’t consider that they were cheating their students out of the opportunity to develop their unique language skills. Now, my father and his siblings have to pay for others to teach their children the valuable skill of bilingualism that they were denied and that other students are rewarded for cultivating.
This suppression of diverse language practices is not limited to students who speak languages other than English. There is also diversity and value within English-speaking communities that we should not attempt to eradicate. Fortunately, there are various ways that all of us as educators can help our students develop their language practices for all of the spaces they pass through. Here are a few:
- Encourage flexible language practices (translanguaging). Allow students to draw on all of the tools in their language toolbox to learn, communicate, and express themselves. For example, if we ask students to make an outline for a paper they are assigned, they could be allowed the freedom to use any format and language that help them organize their thinking.
- Raise language awareness (metalinguistic awareness). Guide students to see patterns in their own language and the language of others so that they’re more conscious about the decisions they make.
- Promote context-rich language development (legitimate peripheral participation). Provide real examples of language use in different spaces—such as communicating needs at a doctor’s visit, negotiating policies with school leaders, or applying to a job in the hospitality industry—and allow for real, guided communication in those spaces.
- Build student-centered classrooms. Get to know the students we teach and provide flexible lessons and projects that guide them in connecting new information to their prior knowledge.
Valuing diverse language practices is difficult in our current system of education. Many assessments prevent multilingual students from demonstrating their full language ability, yet these tests are core to the education system in the United States. Teachers are held accountable for a narrow definition of achievement. Communities’ values and practices are often ignored in the schools that serve them.
I know from personal experience that it’s not easy to adopt the practices I’ve detailed here. I know that language is not static and that rules governing its use are subjective. Too often, I bowed to the constant warnings from teacher educators, researchers, and principals of the failure that awaited my students who did not learn the correct kind of language in my classroom.
It’s time to recognize that our insistence on labeling and classifying language is not a necessary evil. Let’s allow our students to tell us what they can do with language instead of asking them to always make it fit into our own models.
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Language-Skills Reality Check