This piece recently appeared in The Atlantic. There should be no clash between education and assimilation. Bilingual education in our country is more of an issue of politics than evidence. When well staffed, funded, and designed, it works in all the ways that we care about in terms of educational outcomes. If anything, this "debate" has more to do with the dominant group's loss of centrality and a lack of desire to relinquish privilege. Too bad. There is so much to gain from a bilingual and bicultural—indeed multilingual and multicultural—world.
Chelsea, a 13-year-old Spanish-speaker who learned English in the third grade, recalls her earliest years in school as especially difficult amid her struggles to communicate with peers. “I used to get mad and aggravated because I couldn’t speak English,” she says. “People were looking at me as if I were another type of human being.” Her classmates share similar frustrations. “I felt dumb and left out when we did advanced math because my teacher wouldn’t let me do it even though I knew I could,” says Yaye, a bright 14-year-old who speaks Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, at home. Yaye says he languished in his K-2 English-as-a-second-language classes, “not progressing or learning.” Melyanet, also 14, remembers feeling alienated and lonely when she was in prekindergarten—an age when children often sharpen their social skills through play. “I would try my best to learn English but it was hard,” the teen recalls. “No one spoke [Spanish] so I wouldn’t make friends. I would sit in the back.”
The adolescents at Harlem Village are part of a rapidly growing population of students in America’s public schools with diverse linguistic backgrounds. Of the 50 million students currently enrolled in public K-12 schools, almost one in four (12 million) schoolchildren ages 5 to 17 speak a language other than English at home, according to an analysis of census figures. Their numbers have inched up over the last decade, along with the percentage of students participating in English-language-learners programs. Department of Education data shows this segment of the public-school population is steadily climbing. Some 4.4 million students—ranging from those who don’t speak English to those transitioning into full proficiency—were classified as English language learners in the 2012-13 school year, an increase of more than 250,000 students over the previous decade.
Many trace today’s fraught bilingual-education politics back to the Bilingual Education Act, which was adopted in 1968 to aid local school districts in educating children with limited English. At the bill signing, President Lyndon B. Johnson voiced his enthusiasm for a law that would bring an unprecedented federal role and funds to the education of children whose first language wasn’t English:
Thousands of children of Latin descent, young [Native Americans], and others will get a better start—a better chance—in school … What this law means is that we are now giving every child in America a better chance to touch his outermost limits—to reach the farthest edge of his talents and his dreams. We have begun a campaign to unlock the full potential of every boy and girl—regardless of his race or his region or his father's income.
Olga Kagan, a languages and cultures professor at UCLA and director of the university’s National Heritage Language Resource Center, has studied the implications of denying students the ability to communicate in their parents’ native language. “Many of these students have no literacy in the language they speak,” she wrote in a December 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed. “And that is a problem.”
Rather than ignoring English in the classroom, Kagan calls for capitalizing on the language skills students already have and taking their background knowledge into account. “I think the main roadblock is societal attitude to bilingualism ... We lose much of the nation’s capacity in languages by letting go of this resource,” she told me recently. And the various benefits for students are evident. Kagan’s survey of California college students found many “heritage speakers” wished to study their home language at school to connect with their culture, build their literacy, and strengthen their bonds with relatives.
Driving much of the decision-making in English-language instruction are myths that need debunking, says Rusul Alrubail, an education consultant whose work focuses on English-language learners and pedagogical practices in the classroom. “Banning [a child’s] first language often creates a negative impact ... a sense of divide for students between their first language, often used at home, and English. We see students who refuse to be associated with their first language, or refuse to speak it or acknowledge that they know it, due to them feeling ashamed ... This impacts their cultural identity.”
Among the consequences, says Alrubail, are when students internalize the notion that their first language is inferior—with English becoming the language of assimilation—and when some immigrant families specifically ask their kids not to speak in their first language at home in an effort to ensure their children conform to Western culture. Interestingly, research finds mixing languages has no impact on children’s vocabulary development. But the pressure from teachers and schools, enshrined in policy and practices, can be immense.
“Many teachers believe that in order to learn English one must assimilate to American culture and abandon one's own cultural practices,” Alrubail said. “This is always a result of fear and anxiety; when students do not meet their expectation of what it means to be ‘American,’ it becomes imperative to speak English.”
The upshot of this mindset is seen in Amadou, a 13-year-old at Harlem Village who speaks Fulani, a Niger-Congo language spoken by 13 million people in many parts of in West, Central, and North Africa. “Nobody spoke my language except in my home [so] I would only try to speak English so they wouldn’t look at me differently. I wanted to fit in with everyone else and be the same,” he says. Will his native language, rich in tradition and heritage, soon slip away as the middle-schooler slowly simmers in America’s melting pot?