English Only Here: The Impact of Restrictive Language Policies on Language Identity and Student Achievement

Last week, I had the opportunity to be part of a critical dialogue about the past, present, and future trends in the education of linguistically and culturally diverse students (also called bilingual, emergent bilingual, EL’s, and ELLs) with Manuel and Dr. Kathy Escamilla.  It was a dialogue that created so many flashbacks of my experiences as a student.  It was also a humbling reminder of my last two decades as an educator. The lingering message was a narrative of language policies that coerced linguistically diverse students out of their first language. And schools issuing a growing number of punishments for “failing” to acquire a second language almost instantaneously.  The sad reality is that in many ways it was a terrible walk down memory lane that I almost did not want to take – and yet, I’m infinitely grateful that I did.  The day left me hungry to change the reality of this narrative for current and future children who depend on schools to prepare them for a future of their choosing. The message of the day was powerful, but one question in particular keeps calling my attention.  What are the implications of losing a language?  It seems like a simple question?  And yet it is incredibly profound.  Many of us serve language learners in various program models with strong and (at times) immensely restrictive language policies: Don’t speak your native language in class. You need to find other friends so that you can practice English during recess Put a quarter in the jar if you use your native language These are practices and messages I have heard in schools across the country.  But why are these policies problematic?  Why should all educators be concerned with the consequences of restricting a native language in school?  Personally, I know that my language is part of who I am; it is an essential connection to my past, my culture, my funds of knowledge.  My language is how I interact with, negotiate with, and socialize with this world.  My language is a point of pride that honors my culture and concurrently is refined and expanded by that same cultural connection. My language is my window to learning and gateway to new ideas embedded in books.  To take away my language is to take away my right and access to interact socially and academically… to devalue the legitimacy of my identity… to render me powerless. This is the reality faced by the fastest growing student group in schools across the country, language learners. Valuing bilingualism as an asset, not a deficit, is a critical mindset needed.  Even still, participation in learning may be a great source of struggle for language learners depending on their skills in English.  Every successful interaction in English helps students to renegotiate their academic, social, and individual identities in more powerful ways – ways that will lead to greater academic success.  Every miscommunication, idea, and thought that is stifled by the limited words and grammar they are able to produce causes a renegotiation towards greater inequality – one that will translate into greater achievement gaps. Educators must consider how to maximize students’ opportunities to fully participate in the learning community while also learning the rules, structures, and vocabulary of English.  The best place to start is to use language policies and practices that provide language learners with a more powerful position to access social networks, opportunities to speak, and the tools to engage in cognitively challenging work.  So how do educators do this? Include texts that reflect the interests and background knowledge of students. Utilize bilingual word walls to allow students to connect academic vocabulary with words in their native language. Engaging students in strategic learning around metalinguistic awareness (the ability to see, analyze, and manipulate language) helps to develop greater proficiency in English. Increase the amount of student talk that requires complex thinking. In doing so, students will have greater opportunities to master content knowledge by utilizing academic language, which are inter-related processes regardless of what language is used.