The Power of Language and Culture in Our Children's Education

The value and importance of integrating our children's languages and cultures into their education deserves greater recognition. This is particularly true in the context of today's increasing emphasis, locally and nationally, on standardized testing and on students becoming numbers rather than individuals who are part of families and communities.

Dual Language programs, a form of bilingual education, are one of the ways to preserve and honor students' languages and cultural identities. Such programs are more important today, not only because of the challenges we face in public education, but, also, given current realities of increased xenophobia, the push for "English only" in Arizona and elsewhere, and attempts to deny immigrant communities basic human and civil rights.

The power and importance of language is understood by both proponents and opponents of bilingual education. It is no accident that when societies, including our own, have tried to colonize or destroy its indigenous communities, one of the first things they have done was forbid the use of their native languages. And if we look at the rhetoric of the English-only movement in this country, we can see it has not only been about opposition to other languages, but also reflects contempt for the immigrant communities speaking those languages.

My children attended a Spanish Dual Language program, one of over 60 Dual Language programs in New York City. Dual Language programs are designed for students to become bi-cultural and bi-literate. Learning and a love of learning flourished in my children's classrooms. In addition to the benefit of learning two languages, children literally stood taller when their parents walked into the room because a deep respect for all children's languages, cultures, and families was integrated at the program's core. The creation of that type of community made a world of difference, yet is something we don't see enough of in our schools; instead, students are too often made to feel embarrassed or shamed if their parents don't speak English or seem too "different".

Bilingual education specialist Professor Ofelia Garcia* points to the research illustrating that, for students who are learning English, the use of children's home language supports their cognitive growth and long-range academic achievement in English. Shown by various assessments, students who graduate from Dual Language programs develop just as strong, if not stronger, English-language skills as those in monolingual programs. Professor Luisa Costa, another specialist in bilingual education, points out that, counterintuitive as it may seem, English language skills become stronger when the home language becomes stronger. In this way, both languages benefit from each other by building one upon the other.

Bilingual education programs, such as Dual Language, value and build upon the knowledge and skills children already have, in contrast to English only instruction, which often ignores students' already existing literacy and language skills and dilutes the curriculum to "match" their English ability. Rather than feeling valued for what they know, students in English only programs often end up feeling inferior or deficient. Professor Garcia aptly notes that students known as English language learners are, in fact, "emergent bilinguals," a term that more accurately reflects what students already know and who they are becoming.

Though Dual Language programs are widely recognized for their success in educating students to become bi-literate and bi-cultural, these programs are often criticized for creating "cultural enclaves," rather than providing students with the tools they need to participate as responsible citizens of our society. But where is the conflict between participating responsibly in our society and having Dual Language programs? The conflict that the critics assume between being responsible citizens and becoming bi-literate and bi-cultural does not exist; clearly, one's notions of "citizenship," as well as racial and class biases, inform discussions about what being a responsible citizen even means.

These critics are missing the profound relationship between pride in, and connection to one's culture, history, and language and how we learn and become intellectually, emotionally, and socially engaged individuals. They also ignore the fact that the language and background of students who are part of dominant American society are, in fact, already reflected in the public school curricula. There is no better way for all of us to connect with others and to feel part of the larger society than to be grounded in, feel the vibrancy of, and build from our own cultures, backgrounds, and identities. And students deserve to have public schools that enable them to do just that.

At a time when so many of us are fighting for a public school system that respects and serves our children, particularly students from immigrant and low-income families of color who have been severely under-served by our system, support for education that builds upon our students' languages and cultures is more important than ever. Our attitudes toward bilingual education speak directly to the kind of school system and society we want for ourselves and for our children.

*Garcia, Ofelia and Kleifgen, Jo Anne. 2010. Educating emergent bilinguals: Policies, programs and practices for English language learners. New York: Teachers College Press