This blog on Texas education contains posts on accountability, testing, college readiness, dropouts, bilingual education, immigration, school finance, race, class, and gender issues with additional focus at the national level.
Who "Gets" to Be Bilingual? [Compliments of the NEPC]
Who “Gets” to Be Bilingual?
The Seal of Biliteracy has social justice roots. Promoted by Californians Together, a non-profit coalition supporting educational equity, the Seal was initially intended to demonstrate the value of bilingualism by attaching a prestigious credential to the diplomas of students who demonstrate proficiency in two or more languages by the time they graduate from high school. There was a special, though certainly not exclusive, focus on demonstrating the linguistic assets (rather than the deficits) that emerging bilinguals bring to the table.
Yet as the Seal has spread to other states, a recent studysuggests the program may have strayed from its equity-based origins in that it privileges native English speakers. The study found that students of color and students from low-income families are less likely to participate than students who are white and/or from higher income families.
In the Q&A below, NEPC Fellow Beatriz Ariasdiscusses the Seal in the context of broader trends affecting emerging bilinguals in the United States. Ariasis former Vice President and Chief Development Officer for the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC. Currently she is a Senior Research Scientist for CAL. Arias is an emeritus Professor at Arizona State University with expertise in policy issues for Latinx students, including bilingual education and school desegregation.
Q: What are “Seals of Biliteracy?” How did they come about? Recent research has found that schools with higher percentages of students of color and students from low-income families are less likely to participate in Seals of Biliteracy programs. Why do you think this might be occurring?
A:The Seal of Biliteracy is an award placed on the student’s high school diploma in recognition of achieving bilingual proficiency. The Seal of Biliteracy program began in 2011 in California as a collaboration between the California Association of Bilingual Education (CABE) and Californians Together. The goal was to give recognition to students’ linguistic accomplishments and add a tangible benefit to being bilingual. The Seal becomes part of a student’s high school transcript and is a highly visible recognition of success. By 2017, 30 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the Seal. That number has continued to grow since then.
Some states have been very successful in promoting the Seal. In 2018, 11 percent of California’s graduating class attained the Seal of Biliteracy. However, there is concern about unequal access to the language curriculum and to the assessment required to qualify for the Seal. Each state determines the criteria for the Seal, and in most cases, requires successful enrollment in advanced language classes. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods tend to have a more comprehensive world language curriculum in comparison to schools in poorer neighborhoods. For instance, they may have the opportunity to take more advanced language courses that are not necessarily offered in lower income communities with fewer resources. This gives them an advantage when it comes to obtaining the Seal. Also, the exams approved for the Seal are those developed for more commonly taught languages such as Spanish, French and German. Less commonly taught languages such as Hmong, Malayalam, and Navajo do not have comparable exams. Consequently, native speakers of these languages may not be able to take the exams required to earn the Seal.
Additionally, Emerging Bilinguals (EBs) sometimes have higher hurdles to earn the Seal because the criteria for earning the Seal mandate that ELs also pass English-proficiency tests—holding them to a higher standard in their second language (English) than native English speakers. These two factors can impede the access of EBs and low-income students to the Seal.
Q: You referred to “Emerging Bilinguals.” In recent years, many people in this field have shifted from speaking of “English language learners” (ELLs) to speaking of “Emergent Bilinguals” (EBs—which is the term we use throughout this newsletter). What is the thinking behind this change, and does it reflect actual policy and practice in the classroom?
A:The field is leading a shift in the terminology used to define English Language Learner and how that learner is perceived, moving from a deficit-based term to an asset-based term. “English Language Learner” limits and focuses the identification of students in terms of their English proficiency. In the past, the terms for Emergent Bilinguals have emphasized their limitations and deficits: “Limited English Proficient” and “Non-English-speaking” were terms that were used officially. But this terminology presents a stigmatizing picture of EBs, defined by their limitations in English: non and limited.
A fresh focus on a new term, Emergent Bilingual, puts an emphasis on the students’ assets, their bilingualism and their potential for growth. This terminology helps teachers recognize students’ dynamic bilingualism and develop pedagogical practices that are consistent with an understanding of children’s home language practices. Teachers are developing innovative ways to include community language in their classrooms. By focusing on EBs, teachers can develop more rigorous instruction and challenging material. For parents and communities looking at the child through the lens of assets, the term EB brings attention to home language use and parents’ role in language learning.