Focusing on biliteracy – an option for all students

More states have started recognizing the value of writing, reading, and speaking a second language. As this EdWeek article states, 13 states now provide a certificate of biliteracy on high school diplomas (and 10 more are working on it). My current home state is one of those states in the early stages – and I hope it moves through the proper channels for implementation. Acknowledging students have biliteracy is an important statement that 1) being able to communicate in other languages is an advantage to workers and residents of any community (regardless of that person’s race/ethnicity/native language), and 2) it provides non-English speakers recognition that their native languages are important.

I recently had a discussion with a district administrator who stated that many Latino families choose to put their children in traditional schooling programs (i.e. English only), despite having English/Spanish dual language programs available in the district. The administrator hypothesized that parents choose the English only route because they believe that English is a more valuable language for school (and likely career). This is a common mentality of immigrants and minority language speakers (in any country).

A personal example being that my grandmother was a first generation US citizen and learned very limited Arabic (her family’s native language), so that she could assimilate faster into school and the community. Sadly, the Arabic language was not passed on to future generations – with exception of the names of Lebanese food we still make and random words that were part of my grandmother’s vocabulary.

Back to the policy/practice point of this entry. In order for non-English speakers to realize the importance of native language, we must place a value on language knowledge. Offering dual languages programs (that are implemented with fidelity) and providing a seal of biliteracy are a few ways that educators can demonstrate the value of multilingual knowledge and skills. Until we, as educators and policymakers, change how we describe and value other languages, immigrants and non-English speakers will continue to devalue their native languages in an effort to assimilate — which is something that no one should feel they need to do.

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