Sunday, May 8, 2011

Does America Appreciate Bilingualism?

by Monica Burton

During the last weeks of class we discussed language education policies in American schools. The readings from this past week discussed certain language policies in the previous decade. Education for students speaking English as a second language was hotly contested and one can argue that the same is true today.

In “Tongue-Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education” Richard Rodriguez describes his experience as a Spanish-Speaking child acclimating to an American, monolingual school. While he felt a sense of loss when his parents began enforcing English around the house, his conclusion on this educational policy is that “while one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality.” Others are not so supportive of a diminished sense of private self. Norma Gonzalez explains the benefits of dual-language education, emphasizing the idea that children in this program are open to and able to understand multiple cultures outside of their own.

Yet, in America, bilingualism and multilingualism from an early age are not looked upon as standard or even preferable, at least when one of those languages is Spanish. Instead, English is seen as a base language that all students must be proficient in before they learn other languages, a practice that does not begin until middle school. In fact, a 2008 Center for Applied Linguistics survey showed that most students who study any foreign language in the United States do not begin to do so before the age of 14. Equally alarming is the fact that this same study revealed that between 1997 and 2008 language education in U.S. public schools decreased at both the elementary and middle school levels. The same survey revealed that students at schools located in rural areas and students of lower socioeconomic status had less access to foreign language instruction. It is apparent that in the United States, languages are not a priority for public schools. Perhaps this is the reason for the inadequate programs for many students learning English as a second language.
A chart based on the Center for Applied Linguistics survey data
The problems with the 1998 English only movement in California were explained in a resolution from the Linguistic Society of America and in Otto Santa Ana’s “Brown Tide Rising.” The opposition to the movement had a lot to do with the “one language, one nation” theory that purports a connection between language and nationality. Many feared the effects of a rising “Brown Tide,” to use Santa Ana’s metaphor. Does this fear still exist?

Ten years after this fierce opposition, the country may be a little more comfortable with the idea that the Latino population is quickly leaving behind its position as a statistical minority. At least this is the conclusion one could draw from the increased instances of Spanish dual language programs in public schools. According to the same Center for Applied Linguistics survey that revealed a lack of language education, Spanish is one of few languages to increase at the elementary school level, jumping nine percent. And just this past week, Southern Methodist University’s news site,, published an article on the rise in dual-language schools in Texas. The article cites census data that shows a 41.8 percent increase in the Hispanic population in Texas since 2000. The article goes on to say that non-Hispanic parents are responding to this shift by supporting Spanish instruction for their children and that public schools’ stigmatized ESL programs are becoming dual-language programs, open to Spanish speakers and English speakers alike.
Lakewood Elementary School in Dallas, Texas has a dual language program.
One ESL program in particular was also in the news recently. MIT News reported that an MIT professor designed a curriculum for an ESL classroom that incorporated linguistics in Malden, Massachusetts. The public high school teacher who suggested the idea thought that it would allow students to compare and contrast English with their native languages.

In the class the program was designed for, students spoke a wide variety of languages. The new lessons took into account the students’ individual needs and a scientific approach to language prevented the idea that English is right and other languages wrong from entering into the classroom. Using linguistics, students’ home languages became classroom material and were validated for their particular characteristics and commonalities. This is a far cry from certain ESL programs that teach English from an English-only viewpoint to students for whom the language is foreign and, perhaps, inaccessible. In this classroom, bilingualism is touted as an asset because this is the belief of linguists. Hopefully, this program will spread, giving other ESL teachers the training necessary to utilize such a curriculum. 

The ESL program at Malden High School teaches Linguistics.

It is difficult to say how much language ideologies have changed in the 21st century. While certain evidence suggests that language is not a priority (in fact, less of a priority than it has been in the past), other recent news has hinted at a change in our views on multilingualism and the treatment of ESL students. The readings from linguists and other language scholars have analyzed the positive effects of the acknowledgement and validation of students’ first languages and the downsides of English-only policies. What has changed to allow for greater acceptance of other languages if such an acceptance has indeed taken place?

It could be said that bilingualism is seen as a skill, but a skill placed on the low end of priority lists by policy makers. While there has been a shift in the recognition of the usefulness of speaking multiple languages on the part of the public, it is not enough of a priority when budget cuts force scrimping on certain programs. The disparity in the availability of languages in public versus private schools and the higher instances of language instruction in wealthier and metropolitan areas is evidence of this, as is the popularity of nannies who speak languages other than English, a trend described in this New York Times article.
A chart based on the Center for Applied Linguistics survey data

It seems that the American public has become more aware of the benefits of multilingualism. One would hope that it is only a matter of time before policymakers follow suit so that fewer students will experience the loss of self that Rodriguez did living in a society supporting English only education. 

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