English learners an asset for global, multilingual future: Arne Duncan and Libia Gil Over the last several days, 230 American men and women competed against and socialized with athletes from 87 other nations at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Olympics are not only a
test of individuals’ athletic prowess, but also a test of nations’ good
will, collaboration and diplomacy — and ability to find a common
As the late Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man
in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him
in his language, that goes to his heart.”
To provide our children an excellent education, and to keep
America competitive economically, we would do well to heed his words.
Today, a world-class education means learning to speak, read and write languages in addition to English.
an interconnected, interdependent global economy, we must prepare our
children for a future in which their social and economic success will
depend on their ability to understand diverse perspectives and
communicate with people from other cultures and language groups. This
isn’t a matter of getting ahead — it’s a matter of catching up.
It is common for students in other countries to be required to study two or three languages in addition to their own.
our country, we have a valuable yet untapped resource within the
estimated 4.6 million students learning English — the fastest-growing
student population in our schools. These students come to school already
speaking a variety of home languages, most commonly Spanish,
Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic or Hmong.
These languages are
significant not only to our economic competitiveness but also to our
nation’s security. The heritage languages our English learners bring to
school are major assets to preserve and value.
Many schools and communities across the country have established
programs to encourage mastery of multiple languages. In effective
dual-language classrooms, English learners and English-proficient
classmates are provided opportunities to learn academic content while
simultaneously becoming proficient in both languages.
our department is encouraging innovations in education of English
learners, in part by making it a priority in the federal Investing in
Innovation (i3) program.
The extraordinary opportunities — and
needs — of our English learner population were the focus of the
three-day National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)
conference, which convened last week and drew over a thousand
There, leaders from our department described the department’s
commitment and met with international leaders to improve cross-border
Educating speakers of other languages in
English, and encouraging mastery of multiple languages, has long been
important to America’s competitiveness — and will be increasingly vital
in the years to come.
We challenge our schools and communities to invest in our future leaders with biliteracy and multiliteracy skills.
Duncan is U.S. secretary of Education. Libia S. Gil is assistant deputy
secretary of the Office of English Language Acquisition in the
Department of Education.