[lg policy] Bilingual Students Need Support in Their Native Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed May 13 15:17:33 UTC 2015

Bilingual Students Need Support in Their Native Language
By Joe Levitan

"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

More Opinion
Visit Opinion.

• 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.

Joe Levitan has worked with bilingual students for many years, including
time teaching in diverse inner-city middle schools in Boston, New York
City, and Baltimore. He currently directs educational programming at the
Sacred Valley Project in Cusco, Peru, an international nonprofit
organization that provides access to secondary schools for Quechua women in
that country. He is pursuing a dual doctorate in educational leadership and
comparative and international education at Pennsylvania State University.


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