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Bilingual Youth: Language Demands of a Globalized Future

Who is more limited -- those who are growing up with two languages, both in formation, or those who only have access to one code? Many English Learners serve as "language brokers" for their families -- as well as for their teachers.
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For some time, I have been thinking about what education might look like if we truly wanted to build on the linguistic and cultural assets of bilingual youth.

I'm referring to youth who used to be called "Limited English Proficient" students in school. Now they're labeled "English Learners," but schools still tend to view them as "limited."

We might ask: who is more limited -- those who are growing up with two languages, both in formation, or those who only have access to one code?

Many English Learners use their skills in the English they are learning, and in their home language, to speak, read, write and do things for others. They serve as "language brokers" for their families -- as well as for their teachers and many monolingual English speakers.

Arguably, these kids possess skills that are of great value in an increasingly globalized and intercultural world: the ability to talk to and mediate between speakers of different languages and people from different cultures. Moreover, these skills are not just of value for living in such a world, but for creating the kind of world that I, for one, hope to see.

One day I watched as a 14-year-old daughter of immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico translated a letter for her mother. She didn't read the text aloud in English; she simply looked at the page and rendered it in Spanish for her mom. Then the phone rang, and she fielded a call from the doctor's office and set up an appointment for her mom.

Maria's skills as a language broker have developed over time. When she was younger, she used to read English texts aloud and then translate them, sentence by sentence; she still does this with some texts that are particularly hard. But mostly, she just translates as she goes. She switches seamlessly in and out of languages when she interprets for others. She notices who needs help with translations when she is out in stores and steps in to assist.

Maria developed this dexterity from years of language brokering in situations that demanded a linguistic flexibility and versatility that few "English Only" students have the opportunity to experience.

We might ask not just about the failure of English Learners in schools, but the failure of schools to recognize and build on these students' strengths. This failure is especially acute in this era in which teachers are under tremendous pressure to have their students meet narrow measures of success, in English.

Deficit frameworks are pervasive and invasive. They get under our skin and into our language, and they are really hard to counter. Even if we don't intend them as "deficit," simply focusing on the challenges kids face in school may keep us from seeing the things they are doing that schools do not value -- but should.

So the first step in building on the linguistic and cultural assets of bilingual youth is to recognize them. To see what students can do, and do do, and where their potential lies, not just what they have difficulty with.

This is not easy, I know. I was a third grade teacher for 10 years, in a new immigrant community in Los Angeles. Now, as a researcher I work with kids in out-of-school contexts as well as in schools.

And I notice the way my views of kids change when I put on my teacher hat. All the things they have trouble with seem to leap out at me: spelling mistakes and grammatical constructions and misunderstandings. It's natural as a teacher to notice where kids need help, so we can direct our attention there.

But can we train ourselves to first stop and notice what kids are doing well? And help kids to see that themselves? Because they may not.

We could also identify ways of leveraging what kids know and can do -- using these as building blocks or stepping stones to help them do the things that schools and test makers value -- as well as things that we believe will be valuable for creating a better world.