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Making Space for Bilingual Voices

A few days ago, I walked into the Oaxaca Public Library (La Biblioteca Publica Central Estatal de Oaxaca, Mexico) and introduced myself to the Director, Ms. Ruth Orozco Hernandez. We talked briefly about the different programs the library provides for children and she showed me around their children’s room---a sunny small room on the first floor of a beautiful old colonial building. In addition to numerous books in Spanish, there were books in Zapotec and even a few in English.

I thought about the different libraries and books stores that I have visited in the last three weeks, while traveling across the United States and all the way down to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. In each city, I would eagerly find a nearby local public library or independent bookstore in order to check out the book selections for children. To my amazement, every bookstore and public library had books in multiple languages. The Children’s Room of the San Francisco Public Library stood out as especially impressive and welcoming, with children’s books in over a dozen languages!

Librarians and bookstore owners are telling us something important as they select and highlight books in different languages and from different cultures: diversity matters! By having an array of children’s books celebrating diversity, they are sending a strong message about the kind of world our next generation of readers and citizens will grow up in. I am excited that my new book, Ana’s Day/El Dia de Ana will be a part of this dialog and hopefully will contribute in a positive way to the growing national debate about bilingualism.

For years, we parents and teachers were told that learning to be bilingual was bad for children—it might make them confused, or it might delay their ability to speak well. Now, thanks to new research, we are learning that bilingualism has cognitive advantages, such as improved attention span, and self-control. A recent program on American RadioWorks highlighted the work of Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist at York University in Toronto. She is finding that bilinguals may have a strong “executive control” system because of the need to switch, mentally, between two languages. In some studies, researchers are even beginning to find that for some children, learning to be bilingual has improved their ability to focus, which in turn can have a positive impact on academic performance.

The debate around bilingual education and dual-language learning has never been hotter. Proposition 227 which severely restricted bilingual education in California and replaced it with structured English Immersion (SEI) classes will be put to the test if a new bill, introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara gets on the ballot in 2016.

In the intervening 15 years, since Prop 227 passed, Professor Patricia Gandara, a research professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Los Angeles and a co-director of the school’s Civil Rights Project, has observed that there has been an explosion of dual language programs popping up in California. Another state, which has jumped on the dual-language bandwagon is Utah. Over the last five years, Utah has implemented a statewide dual-language immersion program, helping children to learn languages such as Chinese, Spanish and Arabic in tandem with English. Has bilingual education suddenly become a hot new reform tool?

As someone who has loved learning new languages all my life (German as a 16 year old high school exchange student to Braunschweig, Germany; Swahili as a dance ethnographer in Nairobi,Kenya; Bengali as a student of dance in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and now Spanish as a teacher and children’s book author) I applaud these efforts to help children become bilingual.

But as new dual language immersion or bilingual programs proliferate across the country, I hope people will take time to reflect on the following “wish list” for bilingual education:

I hope that bilingual education is not presented as a “subtractive” experience, where the second language is learned at the expense of the child’s first language.

I hope that we don’t get into some hierarchy of language preferences, where children are encouraged to learn some languages because they are considered “better” or more “socially acceptable” because of perceived differences in social, class or immigration status.

Likewise I hope that we resist linking language learning with some kind of economic incentive such as “learn Chinese, because they will be the next economic superpower. “

I hope that policy-makers and practitioners, who embrace dual-language learning and becoming bilingual, will remember that language learning is more than memorizing verb tenses. Learning a new language is about identity and about learning about the people who speak that language.

Most important, learning a new language is about learning about one’s self and acknowledging the complex interchange of privilege and difference when people from different cultural backgrounds engage with each other. Hopefully teachers and other supporters of dual-language learning and bilingualism will remember that this process starts with respect for differences and a willingness to address complicated issues of race, ethnicity, and class in age-appropriate ways.

How are parents, teachers, and policy makers encouraging and supporting bilingualism and dual-language learning is your area? Check in and share your questions, observations, or concerns.

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