English-Language Learners

What Duncan’s Speech on Foreign Languages Didn’t Say

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 13, 2010 2 min read

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a plug for the teaching of foreign languages in elementary and secondary schools last week without mentioning the great resource this country has of children who grow up speaking a language other than English at home. Sometimes called “heritage speakers,” children who speak languages such as Arabic, Farsi, and Russian at home have a head start in bilingualism over children who speak only English at home and are starting from scratch in learning some of the languages that the federal government considers to be critical for the nation’s economy, diplomacy, and security. Many heritage speakers are born in this country and already have quite a bit of exposure to English, while at the same time being fluent in a home language when they enter school. But unless they get some formal education in that home language in schools, they may never learn how to read and write it.

Duncan was speaking Dec. 8 at a conference hosted by the Central Intelligence Agency and the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language. My colleague Erik Robelen wrote about the meeting over at Curriculum Matters.

Several years ago, I visited Dearborn Public Schools and wrote about the effort there to support heritage speakers of Arabic to become literate in both Arabic and English, which included a bilingual education program in an elementary school. While the Dearborn school system has since benefited from some funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to strengthen the teaching of Arabic in its schools, I haven’t heard federal education officials recently holding up examples of such programs that tap into the skills of heritage speakers as models for promoting bilingualism.

Quite consistently, Duncan has promoted bilingualism in his speeches without making an explicit plug for bilingual education. He knows something about bilingual education because prior to becoming the secretary of education he headed up a school system, Chicago Public Schools, in a state that required the educational approach in every school that had at least 20 students who spoke the same home language.

One kind of bilingual education in particular—two-way immersion, in which students who are native speakers of English and students who are native speakers of another language learn both languages in the classroom—capitalizes on the language skills of heritage speakers. It’s an approach that many researchers favor, but Duncan still left it out of his remarks on how the nation could boost bilingualism.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.