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The Politics of Language: What are some issues for educators and policymakers?

What kind of Bilingual Education:

The discussion of bilingual education can come from two different perspectives. Additive bilingualism focuses on learning English while preserving use of the mother tongue while subtractive bilingualism focuses on teaching English to replace the mother tongue. Research has shown significant benefits in supporting additive bilingualism.

  • Social advantages: Bilingual children mature earlier, are more comfortable with diversity, exhibit social adaptability, and identify more with their ethnic group.
  • Cognitive advantages: Bilingual individuals show higher divergent thinking and increased social sensitivity in situations requiring verbal communication. They also demonstrate clearer thinking and analytical functioning.

Research also indicates that language development in the first language lays an important foundation for second language learning. Students with a high level of proficiency in both languages are likely to have an intellectual advantage in all subject areas when compared with monolingual classmates. For this reason children benefit from instruction in their first language during the early years, and additive bilingual programs are most effective if they provide long term support in both languages. In spite of these research findings, current educational policy tends towards transitioning ELLs to the use of English in school as quickly as possible.

Though elsewhere in the world bilingualism is expected of everyone, current thought in the U.S. often associates bilingualism with poor minority populations. Subtractive bilingualism or immersing students in English only environments is often educational practice. Some states have even passed English only legislation for schools or symbolically declared English as the official language of the state. Legislative attempts in support of both sides of this issue are frequently brought before the United States Congress. See Appendix 2 for samples of recently proposed bills. Turn to Appendix 3 for a look at the continuum of language policies worldwide.

Attitudes Towards English Language Learners:

Mirroring the two sides of public policy, educators may view ELLs through two contrasting lenses. First they may perceive ELLs as language deprived and in need of compensatory education. They see English as the linguistic capital needed to survive and thrive in American society. In a sense this is true; words are central to the activity of schools and a gateway to higher education. Vocabulary is a part of every content area and a major component of standardized tests such as the SAT or GRE. However, this language deficiency view was historically more discriminatory. Prior to the 1960s many researchers set out to prove that bilingualism had negative impacts, actually handicapping students’ language growth and intelligence. Though research has since disproved these notions, examination of current educational practice often uncovers an over-referral of ELLs to special education classes, revealing that they are often still viewed as deficient.

A contrasting lens looks more positively. ELLs enter school already having a rich linguistic background. ESL programs provide enrichment in that they help students gain another language. From an even more positive angle, ELLs can provide enrichment for the whole school with the diverse cultures and knowledge they bring to the classroom.

It is beneficial for all educators to examine their own attitudes towards ELLs and work towards a school policy that celebrates the benefits ELLs bring to the classroom.

Resource Guide for Working with ESL Students
Introduction
Who are English Language Learners? What does legislation say about educating and assessing ELLs? The Politics of Language What patterns does English language development typically follow? What are common program models for ESL education? What does the ESL specialist need from me? How can I support ELLs in my classroom? Conclusion Resources Appendix 1: Declaration of Rights for Parents of English Language Learners under No Child Left Behind Appendix 2: Legislation of the 108th Congress concerning Foreign Languages and International Education Appendix 3: Six Levels of Minority Language Policy