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Breaking Out of The Bilingualism Double Standard

In the United States, we have a double standard regarding bilingualism in school.

This double standard is a result of the implicit bias we have around immigrant students from non-European countries, especially those from Latin America.

We approach linguistically diverse students learning English with a deficit mindset.  I cannot tell you the number of teachers who tell me regularly that their culturally and linguistically diverse students don’t come to school with any assets. None.

Because they can’t fully express themselves in English, we tend to think students learning English are “cognitively slow” and water down instruction rather than finding creative ways to “water it up” in order to build conceptual understand while strengthening language skills.

It reminds me of when I was in the fourth grade. One day we got a new student. His name was Jacque and he was French. He and his family had just moved from France and he spoke no English. We all thought that was pretty cool. French seemed like a cool language. But speaking another language wasn’t unusual. Several kids at my public school in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco spoke another language, mainly Russian, Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino. A few kids spoke, read, and wrote Spanish.

Most of my bilingual classmates were second or third generation immigrants. Their parents or grandparents had come to San Francisco. There was a large number that had been in the United States for generations. Their forefathers and mothers had come to build the railroads or pick produce. What was clear to me though – they believed maintaining your mother tongue and culture was extremely important.  As a result, a lot of my friends were doing language and culture school. They were learning to write Chinese characters or perform Japanese tea ceremonies. Even Jan Horowitz couldn’t hang out because he had to go to Hebrew school.

Fast forward few decades. Even more children in public schools speak another language. This should be a good thing, right?  But that’s not how we act, especially if that language is Spanish. I have not heard many of us in the educational community talk about white immigrant children with such a deficit mindset. But if a child speaks Spanish, it’s a problem. We don’t see it as an asset. Ever.

That’s implicit bias at work.

Somehow we don’t think we can help students learn content, build brainpower, and deepen background knowledge while teaching them English.

So, as we start a new school year, let’s flip the script.

Start by shifting how we talk about bilingualism. Rather than emphasize their language deficits by calling them “English learners” let’s try on “emerging multi-linguals” to describe them so that we emphasize the positives of bilingualism and bi-literacy.

Then, let’s start a PR campaign to highlight the advantages of knowing how to speak and think in more than one language. Tell kids they actually have an advantage over monolingual speakers.  Just like Carol Dweck, author of Mindset recommends telling students about how their brains grow from hard work.

Here are few we can start with:

Cognitive Advantages: The bilingual brain is a more complex, sophisticated brain.

  • The ability to speak two languages is associated with more cognitive flexibility due to a greater number of neural pathways that builds gray matter.
  • Proficiency in two languages gives one the intellectual advantage of superior concept recognition, increased pattern recognition, problem-solving, and divergent thinking (the basis of creativity)

Economic Advantages:

  • Fluency in more than one language and cross-cultural skills are prized and rewarded with higher salaries by most businesses and companies.

Let’s start acknowledging and affirming the gift that bilingualism is, even as our students are still growing into it.

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