Multilingual learners (MLs) represent a tapestry of cultures, languages, experiences, talents, and assets. Currently accounting for 10.4% of the country’s K-12 population, this learner group is one of the fastest-growing student demographics across the U.S. In fact, while other groups have declined as a percentage of the student population nationally, MLs have grown by 35% since the 2000-01 school year. National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month provides an opportunity to honor and advocate for this diverse and growing student population.
Despite this accelerated growth, these students continue to be widely misunderstood, underserved, and even scapegoated in contentious debates centered on “English Only” policies, anti-immigrant narratives, and the like. One common misconception is that MLs are predominantly immigrant students or newly arrived to this country (also known as “newcomers”). However, 72% of MLs in public schools are born in the U.S., speaking more than 400 languages with Spanish the most common (76.6%), followed by Arabic (2.6%), Chinese (2.1%), and Vietnamese (1.6%). Suffice to say, multilingual learners are not a monolith.
Take, for instance, the two of us. While we both entered the American public school system as native Spanish speakers, we had dramatically different student profiles.
In many ways, Magaly’s refugee family experience belied the myth about Cuban-American success in the U.S. After their arrival (first to New York, then to California), her family struggled with poverty and mental health issues. Magaly didn’t learn how to read in “submersion” classrooms until second grade, when her father, who worked as a waiter, taught her how to read a Spanish-language newspaper. The code was broken! Magaly became an avid reader in both languages, not because of the schooling she received but because she was fortunate to have received “de facto” bilingual education. By the time Magaly was in high school, she had decided to become a bilingual educator to support young bilingual learners to develop literacy in two languages and maintain their rich heritage, regardless of their country of origin.
Feliza is a first-generation U.S.-born citizen. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, consciously chose to raise the family as Spanish speakers because they wanted to preserve cultural traditions and oral histories passed down for generations. Language preservation had also been prioritized by Feliza’s great-grandfather and grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1920 in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Despite experiencing discrimination and harassment for speaking Spanish, three generations of the Ortiz family remained committed to preserving their native tongue. Today, Feliza’s children attend a dual language school that educates them to be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural, valuable skills to better navigate our interconnected world.
By maintaining our first language, we were both able to transfer critical skills, translating practices, and meaning-making abilities to more easily develop English proficiency. Like us, millions of ML students enter the school system with a wealth of cultural and linguistic assets that can and should be leveraged by educators.
Earlier this year, NTC released The Elephant in the (Class)room, an equity-centered vision that advocates for a new purpose and new design for American education. The Elephant embraces teaching and learning as a dynamic relational human exchange and encourages educators to examine their cultures and identities and how these influence their interactions with students. It also invites educators to deeply know their students and to create learning experiences that leverage their strengths, interests, and cultures when designing instruction and academic content.
In alignment with this vision, we must redesign policy and practice, from the classroom to the boardroom, so our system can…
- Provide professional learning, like NTC’s emerging Direct-to-Educator multilingual learning cycles, rooted in language development theory that dispels myths and misconceptions about multilingual learners and promotes instructional design that increases access and engagement.
- Invest in career pathways, beginning with recipients of the high school Seal of Biliteracy, now adopted in 49 states, to augment the number of bilingual teachers entering the profession. Bilingual paraprofessionals are also important community-based resources in building teaching career ladders.
- Increase the number of racially and linguistically diverse, equity-focused school and district leaders working to design and implement policies that promote asset-based instruction for multilingual learners.
As we take this opportunity to champion our multilingual communities and the language and cultural capital they bring to the learning environment, let’s also commit to ways we can maximize the potential of multilingual learners, teachers, and leaders every day, all year long for the future of our public education system.
Magaly Lavadenz, Ph.D., is the Leavey Presidential Chair in Ethics and Moral Leadership and founding Executive Director of the Center for Equity for English Learners in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. Her research addresses the intersections and impact of policies and practices for culturally and linguistically diverse students, their teachers, and school leaders.
Dr. Feliza Ortiz-Licon is NTC’s chief of staff. Prior to joining NTC, Feliza served a five-year term on the California State Board of Education where she championed the passage of the asset-based, English Learner Roadmap policy.