Dual-language programs have recently become more common in public schools. In most of them, half the students are non-native Spanish speakers and the other half are non-native English speakers. They each get 50% of their instruction in English and the other in Spanish.
Initially, I thought this method could be powerful in communities with influxes of Spanish-speaking students. In addition to creating students who are fluent in more than one language, successful programs tend to have been driven by passionate and enlightened community members and parents, not via dictate from a school board.
Oh, my naiveté. Oh, my lack of hands-on experience with real-life dual-language programs. Oh, how white privilege derails public education efforts.
It didn’t take long to learn that well-administered dual-language programs taught by highly qualified bilingual teachers can truly produce students who fluently read, write and speak in two languages. But the gains are not spread out equally among participants.
Critics have pointed out that dual-language programs could position native speakers of Spanish to be exploited as a language resource by native English speakers. This, to a certain extent, is by design. However, it advantages native English speakers to potentially reap all the economic benefits of bilingualism.
Research going back to 1997 posited that native English speakers could end up benefiting more from becoming fluent in Spanish, thereby reducing Latinos’ natural advantage as bilinguals in the workforce and dampening already scarce opportunities to win a job or be promoted.
Today, more research demonstrates that students of color and students from low-income families are less likely to participate in dual-language programs than white students and/or those from higher income families, inadvertently privileging native English speakers.
In their new paper, “Recognizing Whose Bilingualism? A Critical Policy Analysis of the Seal of Biliteracy,” Georgetown University professors of linguistics set out to see whether maintaining a native language while acquiring fluency in a new one actually reaps social and economic rewards for the students.
“Although [dual-language programs are] often presented as benefiting both students marginalized by language, race, and social class as well as their privileged peers, we are conscious of the fact that many educational initiatives that have set out to benefit all students often reproduce the privilege some students enter school with,” the researchers wrote.
They analyzed California — an early adopter of the so-called seal of biliteracy, which certifies fluency in other-language reading, writing and speaking. They found that schools with high percentages of students of color and students from low‐income families were less likely to participate in such programs. Non-native English speakers and those who wanted to gain proficiency in a home or heritage language also faced higher obstacles to entering programs promising biliteracy.
The findings suggest that students already privileged along lines of race and class have greater access to the programs — further advantaging them at the expense of native speakers and other students of color.
I can attest.
At least that’s what I’m seeing in my own elementary school dual-language program, which consists of a few white students who are rapidly becoming literate in two languages, and whole sections of Hispanic kids who are struggling with such basics as letter sense and simple reading and writing in both English and Spanish.
And in the very best scenario, at the end of the program, regardless of whether a seal of biliteracy is attained, the white kids will be superstars whose home resources made the seal a feather in a cap, but the brown kids will still be brown, possibly have an accent and likely have lower academic scores than the white kids.
Well-meaning public policy almost always fails in the implementation phase, contorting itself to the harsh, on-the-ground realities of a community’s needs. It’s also rarely financed well.
This isn’t to say that students who earn a seal of biliteracy — and their school districts — aren’t to be applauded. They are; the benefits of really knowing two languages are nearly endless, even if they don’t automatically translate into specific career-related economic gains.
The message is clear, however: Those who have a stake in improving academic and life success for poor and/or non-white kids cannot pin all their hopes on any one program, method or educational fad.
Until we confront the systemic white supremacy that celebrates a white person who speaks two languages and yawns when a brown one does, no seal or plaudit is going to help people of color advance.