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Bilingualism & Biliteracy

amanda.simone's picture

In elementary school, I attended a Spanish language immersion program, housed within a local public school in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. My parents, thinking it would be valuable for me to begin learning another language at a young age, had entered the enrollment lottery and secured me a spot. For six years, I did not walk to school like most of my neighbors, but I took a short bus ride to the next school over with a pretty sizeable group of other kids from my neighborhood attending Spanish Immersion. Spending half the day in English class and half in Spanish, we learned to read and write simultaneously in two languages. I’m sure our parents were ecstatic at this opportunity for their children to become biliterate.

For many years, I didn’t question why the majority hispanic student population, for whom this was their home school, were not involved in this “foreign” language education at all. I guess I assumed they already knew Spanish -- many did -- and didn’t need to learn it like I was. When I got older, and better at Spanish, I practiced more often with my native spanish speaking classmates in the English portion of the day. It was then that I learned that although many of my peers grew up speaking Spanish at home, they couldn’t all read and write the language they spoke fluently.

For some, it was because their parents could not read and write in Spanish either. For others, it was because their parents, often immigrants to the United States from Latin America, emphasized the importance of learning English over maintaining their Spanish, as English literacy is seen as undoubtedly crucial for surviving and succeeding in this country. I am nervous about making too many generalization here because everyone’s experiences were different and unique, but these narratives were certainly present and align with immigrant experiences documented by Rebecca Freeman in her book Building on Community Bilingualism. Overall, there were simply no structures in place at my school to support Spanish literacy for heritage learners, children of immigrants who learn and use their parent’s native language at home or have a cultural connection to a language. This juxtaposition between (mostly) affluent (mostly) white kids immersing themselves in Spanish and the rest of the predominantly hispanic student body learning English (either as English Language Learners (ELL) or in regular classes) is making me think critically about bilingualism, biliteracy, and how our culture values these respective language skills.  

While society celebrates the immersion students (and their parents) for taking this educational opportunity to become bilingual, the heritage speakers received little to no recognition for already being bilingual and the English language learners were rarely commended for learning English as a second language. Instead, their pre-existing or potential for bilingualism and biliteracy were forced to take a back seat to focus on English literacy. (I use the word forced because educationally, there was no option for native speakers to continue their Spanish education, but also because the “choice” to assimilate linguistically is never really a choice at all in this country.) I see this inequity in my elementary school as having lasting effects. Whereas I can enter the job market in a few years boasting of my impressive or attractive bilingual skills that began 15 years ago in Spanish immersion elementary school, the heritage speakers who were not provided with opportunities at school or at home to improve their Spanish literacy might not be able to.

This double standard that I observed during my experience with immersion education leads me to believe that literacies are not equal. Some literacies are valued more than others, and these language and literacy politics contribute to the continued depreciation of marginalized people. When people are denied access to becoming literate in their own language or culture, not only is a cultural hierarchy supported but literacy itself becomes a source of power and privilege that can be used to further oppress those who lack it.

In “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And The Future Life of Willie Jordan,” June Jordan describes a different example of a lack of literacy education for some of her students. Although many of her African American students spoke or identified with African American Vernacular English, or what she calls Black English, “None of the students had ever learned how to read and write their own verbal system of communication” (Jordan 365). This situation and my observations about Spanish in my elementary school are in no way the same, but I think they both speak to the power of denying or preventing literacy education that is directly connected to people’s identities. The lack of any Spanish for Spanish speakers classes and the lack of formal recognition of Black English (“As far as I knew, no one, anywhere in the United States, had ever offered such a course” (Jordan 365)) similarly communicate that there are hierarchies of language and thus hierarchies of culture (or race/ethnicity etc). When English is imposed on students as more appropriate than either a native language or a dialect, these languages are devalued as are those who speak them. As Rosemary Salomone writes in True American: language, identity, and the education of immigrant children, “When schools adopt policies that effectively make minority languages invisible, they create an impression in the minds of minority children that their first language is backward, useless, of low status (75).”

In response, Jordan and her students intended to reclaim and assert their power, life, and existence through teaching and becoming literate in Black English. Because Jordan notes that this reclamation effort confronts the threat of “annihilation” and “assimilation,” I believe it is a relevant model to any situation where native language literacy is inaccessible to a minority population.

Fortunately, the language and pedagogy of English language teaching is changing to mitigate its devaluing effect on native languages. Ofelia Garcia and Jo Anne Kleifgen promote the new label “emergent bilinguals” as opposed to English language learners and other variations to recognize that those students who are learning English are also functional in another language(s):

Instead of being regarded as “limited” in some way or as mere “learners of English” as the terms...suggest, students are seen instead for their potential to become bilingual, and bilingualism begins to be recognized as a cognitive, social, and educational resource… When officials and educators ignore the bilingualism that these students can and must develop through schooling in the United States, they perpetuate the inequities in the education of these children (2-3).

This philosophy identifies part of what was missing in my elementary school: the recognition that many students, not just those in the immersion program, were working toward being able to speak two or more languages.

However, the labels do not change the lack of educational opportunities in school that are available to people to become truly bilingual and biliterate. Although much language and literacy education can happen in the home, there is still an inequity between formal bilingual education or half day immersion and what Olga Kagan, director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA, calls homegrown bilingualism. In the Los Angeles Times she wrote, “We need to embrace and advance homegrown bilingualism, but that can happen only if we offer these languages in our educational system.”

One success story, or what sounded more ideal to me at least, appears in Rebecca Freeman’s writing about language ideologies among Puerto Rican immigrant families in North Philadelphia. Because Silvia, a Puerto Rican teen student in North Philly, received bilingual education in elementary and middle school, she gained literacy in both English and Spanish, which allows her to help her monolingual Spanish-speaking mother as well as succeed in an English dominated environment. Nevertheless, Freeman points out the detrimental effects, or rather the lost opportunities, that can occur when bilingual education is not longer available:

Silvia needs more opportunities to use oral and written spanish at school so she does not lose the expertise she has developed through her schooling to date. With such support, Silvia could develop considerable expertise in Standard Spanish and she could readily develop the literacies she would need for academic and business purposed in Spanish. Without further support, Silvia is likely to continue her shift to English (110).

All this is to say that since literacy is powerful tool, biliteracy is arguably even more powerful and needs to be better supported. People who are bilingual and biliterate serve immensely important roles in their families, communities, and in society. Plus, bilingual and biliterate fluency can affirm one's identities against assimilation and lingocentrism. Thus, educational structures that do not extend the opportunities for biliteracy to students who already have a foundation or connection to two languages but do support bilingual education for monolingual students are using the power of literacy to divide and disadvantage some their students while giving others a huge advantage. Equitable access to bilingual education could be a way to reassert the existance of marginalized identities and combat hegemonic structures through literacy in not one but multiple languages.


Works Cited:

Freeman, Rebecca D. "Part II: Exploring Language Ideologies in North Philadelphia." Building on Community Bilingualism. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Pub., 2004. 87-147. Print.

GarciÌa, Ofelia, and Jo Anne. Kleifgen. "Chapter 1-2." Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. New York: Teachers College, 2010. 1-22.

Jordan, June. "Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan."Harvard Educational Review 58.3 (1998): 363-74.

Kagan, Olga. "Schools Should Help the Children of Immigrants Become Truly Bilingual." Los Angeles Times 21 Dec. 2014: n. Pag. Online.

Salomone, Rosemary C. "Chapter Four." True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. 68-97.


Anne Dalke's picture

This essay has a clear and compelling shape, moving from your account of your own education, which lacked “structures to support Spanish literacy for heritage learners,” into an analysis—with the astute help of several specialists in the field--of the “double standard” of second language learning in this country, where “literacies are not equal,” with some “languages and those who speak them devalued,” and the “’choice’ to assimilate linguistically never really a choice.” In this framework, literacy becomes a means of giving some students a huge advantage, while disadvantaging others.

In response, you call for “equitable access to bilingual education,” a re-framing in which everyone is addressed as “emergent bilinguals” in a way that doesn’t reinforce a “cultural hierarchy” that “effectively makes minority languages invisible,” but instead offers broader “recognition that many students are working toward being able to speak two or more languages.” This would involve taking on the current “inequity between formal bilingual education and homegrown bilingualism,” in ways that could affirm multiple identities “against assimilation and lingocentrism.”

I find myself rallying to your call (and also recalling my oldest daughter’s master thesis, which she wrote for the Bank Street College of Education, on “Transforming Bilingual Education in New York City”). She now teaches middle school Spanish @ Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, and I’m eager to share your work with her. I’m also eager to think-and-work with you around some of the concrete particularities and interventions that might be needed as first steps toward a vision of  “bilingual and biliterate fluency” that doesn’t re-inscribe existing sources of “power and privilege that can be used to further oppress those who lack them.” Where are the schools that are already doing this sort of work, and what are their practices?

I’m also curious about current practices at Bryn Mawr in this arena. I know that “non-native speakers of English” may waive the “foreign language requirement” (and find that terminology problematic). You’ve got me wondering now how proficiency is tested, and whether all “native languages” qualify; are there any exceptions, any distinctions made between spoken by many people and those spoken by few, between what have been called ‘dialects, not languages”? Is all bilinguality equal? Should a college with an intention of creating global citizens insist that it be?

Eager to talk more about all of this,