Saturday, July 21, 2018

Press 1 for English? These days, biliteracy deserves not just tolerance, but academic rewards [Editorial]

Happy to see the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle cite my Houston ethnography, Subtractive Schooling, to connect the dots between the treatment of immigrants, discrimination against Mexican Americans, Texas' current “State Seal of Biliteracy,” and (what should be) making America great, namely, through biliteracy—or literacy in two languages.  Spanish-English literacy, through bilingual and dual language programs is what is indeed happening throughout Texas, including places like Houston, El Paso, San Antonio, and Austin, at varying degrees.  This should arguably be happening everywhere throughout our state and nation.

To my awareness, it has been years since the Houston Chronicle has cited my work.  And only once amongst a handful of times.  Regardless, this means that our work as researchers, scholars, and critical ethnographers makes a difference in the world.  And for that I am very pleased.

Angela Valenzuela

By The Editorial Board | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
July 21, 2018


“English! English! Go back to Mexico. You’re in America!”
“English! English! Go back to Mexico. You’re in America!” 
Not so long ago, that response, described in an ethnography by University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela, is what Texas schoolchildren could expect for speaking Spanish in the hallways. Punishments and reprimands were common experience for students whose open use of bilingual skills could be perceived as flauting American customs or refusing to assimilate.
Fast forward 20 years. Bilingual skills are not only tolerated; they’re rewarded.

Yes, some of President Trump’s policies seem to be making America less welcoming to refugees, other foreigners and even sometimes non-native English speakers with noticeable accents.
At the same time, policymakers in Texas and elsewhere are acting on research that has suggested the benefits of speaking more than one language range from better ease with multitasking to potentially delaying the onset of dementia. In college and the workforce, the advantages are clear: Multilingual students have improved access to post-secondary education and help-wanted signs across Texas beckon bilingual applicants.
Today, Texas is one of more than 30 states that now offers a “State Seal of Biliteracy.” The commendation recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in one or more languages other than English.
Texas students and their families should consider setting this seal as an academic goal. School counselors should encourage students to seek it. Districts should proudly display the number of qualifying students prominently on their websites.
In today’s competitive workforce, students need every advantage they can get. For too long, the built-in advantage of speaking a different language in the home was squandered. Now, students can cultivate their language knowledge and turn it into fluency in reading, writing and speaking. The seal can open doors by signaling to colleges and potential employers that the applicant’s language skills aren’t just conversational; they’re comprehensive.
An estimated 1 in 5 Americans speak a language other than English in their home. Even under current anti-immigration policies, that number is not likely to go down significantly. Businesses and schools need a way to communicate with non-English speakers.
Employers posted more than three times more jobs for Chinese speakers in 2015 than they had just five years earlier, according to a report by the New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of mayors and business leaders that supports immigration reform. During the same time period, the number of U.S. job ads listing Spanish and Arabic as a desired skill increased by roughly 150 percent, according to the report.
Of the 627,000 bilingual positions posted throughout the country in 2015, roughly 70,000 were in Texas. While many employers favor bilingual applicants, there are certain businesses where it is crucial, including education, finance and health care.
Here in our city — a potpourri of cultures and languages — the Houston Independent School District offers opportunities for bilingualism through its 56 dual-language schools. In Texas’ 9th-grade classrooms, populated by an estimated 47,458 English language-learners, the seals not only represent a goal for students, but a celebration of their unique skills.
The seal represents great strides from a day when students were stigmatized for multilingualism. While more can be done to capitalize on the language skills of our state’s native and foreign-born populations, the recognition of today’s policymakers that multilingualism is an asset, not a hindrance, for students and workers is key to Texas’ ability to thrive in the global economy

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