The following blog post, by Valerie Eisenson, was created in collaboration with TeachPlus.
At the beginning of the year, I asked my students – a group of 7th and 8th graders – to write about their bilingualism. Given that I teach English as a Second Language, I was expecting all of my students to dive easily into the activity. My students, however, sat in silence. After a few moments, one student shyly raised his hand and said, “Miss, I am not bilingual.” I asked him to tell me more. He replied, “I can’t read in Spanish and English is my worst subject…I am not bilingual.” Other students in the room nodded in agreement. The students who most vehemently agreed were those who were born in the United States.
I was surprised by this response, and troubled. My students are definitely bilingual. They all come from homes in which another language is spoken almost all of the time and they spend their entire day at school learning and participating in English. My students have adopted a deficit-based understanding of their own abilities and see bilingualism as a binary switch – either you are or you aren’t.
It is hard to say from where or how this self-perception developed, but it demonstrates the power and privilege of English in our society today. In our public schools, students who are continuing to develop their English proficiency are called “English Language Learners” or “ELLs.” Even this label highlights the dominance and power of the English language while discounting the linguistic abilities that our students already have. “English Language Learners” are also more often students of color. (White students who are in a dual-language program are never referred to as “Spanish-Language Learners,” a double standard that pervades our mindset about bilingualism.) ELLs rarely get to showcase their language abilities in school because the focus is always on mastering English. By denying students the ability to think of themselves as bilingual, we are lowering their self-confidence and perceptions of self-worth. They constantly see themselves as lacking, when in fact with every new word they learn in English, they are becoming enormously more linguistically talented than the majority of white Americans.
After learning from my 7th and 8th graders’ experiences at the start of the year, my colleagues and I made it an underlying mission of our daily language-based intervention groups, and our work in the school, to empower our students to take ownership of their bilingualism. During the first month of working with our students, we discussed bilingualism as a spectrum, and studied the effects and benefits of bilingualism. My students got very excited about an opinion piece in the New York Times, which discusses the effects of being bilingual on brain power, a short video that helps students visualize what is going on in a bilingual brain, and a Ted Talk that equates bilingualism to a superpower.
My students, while still hesitant to fully embrace their bilingual identities, are now more open to the idea. They had heard that being bilingual in the workforce can result in higher pay or promotions, but never thought of themselves as part of that category. By explicitly teaching the power of bilingualism, our classroom became a conducive learning environment with strong relationships, fostering academics alongside social-emotional learning. Students are slowly beginning to see themselves as the talented individuals that they are.
There are a few intentional school-wide changes that we have made in order to combat our students’ negative self-image, as well. Thanks to the wise words of a few Bilingual Education experts, our school now refers to our “English Language Learners” as “Emerging Bilinguals” to emphasize the ideal outcome for our students – proficiency and confidence in two or more languages, not just in English. We have also made an effort to increase family engagement to take advantage of the enormous cultural wealth that our community members have to offer.
As Massachusetts has recently passed the LOOK Act (Language Opportunity for our Kids), it is the moment to change the way we value and educate Emerging Bilinguals in our schools. Dual-language programs, native language literacy programs, seals of biliteracy, and Parent Advisory Councils are just some of the ways that we can adapt our programs to better meet the needs of our most talented, and most often overlooked, students.
After seeing my students’ reactions to what I thought would be a simple question, I believe it is imperative that we acknowledge what it means to be bilingual earlier on in our students’ curriculum, as well as consistently throughout their time in our schools. We cannot wait until students begin to question their strengths later on in their educational career. We must validate all students’ abilities, and allow students to see their diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds as the assets that they are.