Bilingual Privilege

When I finished student teaching, I worked as a substitute paraprofessional while I waited for my teaching certificate to process. One day, I accepted a one-day sub job at a local elementary school which turned out to be in the Spanish immersion first grade shadowing two students with some minor behavioral challenges. I did not know it would be in Spanish immersion until I arrived. I am not fluent in Spanish. I barely have a survival knowledge of Spanish. Those first graders owned me.

Speaking of my survival knowledge of Spanish: I took two years in high school, which was enough to test out of a semester at college. I took four semesters of ASL, which satisfied my language requirement. My friends took Spanish, German, French, or ASL. A few took Classics (Greek and Latin). My Deaf Ed. classmates and I would practice signing whenever we could, but we would revert back to English for difficult conversations or when we were tired. No one judged us or gave us the side-eye for using our native tongue.

A Google search for “baby sign” pulls up over 491,000,000 hits. I think by now the whole idea of “baby sign” has jumped the shark, but for a while it was everywhere. Except, you know, most speech-language pathologists’ or audiologists’ offices. Advocates were touting how baby sign could boost the language and communication abilities of hearing babies, while parents of deaf babies were hearing that letting their children sign would prevent them from ever learning to speak.

And now, finally, I get to my point: In the U.S., bilingualism is considered an asset if your first language is the privileged tongue. Otherwise, you are a liability. Not just your language–your person is a liability.

My students are on track to be bilingual adults. They are already fairly bilingual children, navigating a world of English and sign language, adeptly code-switching based on their environments and conversational partners. Voice off with the Deaf counselor, voice on for the librarian. Each of them is the only deaf or hard-of-hearing person in his or her family, and they are developing the skills to communicate their needs and be happy little humans that are growing into happy full-sized humans. BUT–they are behind in reading and writing and most other measures of English proficiency. At least two of them will probably need interpreter services for a long time, possibly forever. One of my students is tri-lingual, and he owns it. He is proud of his languages, as well he should be. He can tell you his family is from Mexico and that they speak Spanish. He can tell you he is Deaf and that he uses sign language. He can tell you that he also uses English. But he reads a year behind grade level, so he’s failing.

There’s a little mandated test here that measures a non-native English-speaking student’s English proficiency and, presumably, growth. Here’s the kicker: since the test measures English, directions cannot be signed. Even if a student could complete an English writing task if given the directions in ASL, the directions must still be given in spoken English. So our deaf students who take the test never show any growth, even when their English does, in fact, improve. English is the language of privilege; growth cannot be shown on your own terms.

Here in Idaho, students who immigrate are given a one-year waiver on state standardized tests. After that, they must take the language, reading, and math tests in English at grade level. The score is included in the school’s reporting. After a year in the country. Only once in my life have I seen a student become proficient in English in a year; I’m pretty sure that student is quite an anomaly.

In Deaf education, we talk a lot about providing language-rich environments, not just English-rich environments. We use ASL and English all day. We use strategies like chaining and sandwiching and fingerspelling to connect the two languages. We read and we write. We use sticky notes and we draw pictures. We record ourselves signing and we watch the videos and revise and rerecord. This is the advantage to working at a residential program. Well, most of the time, anyway. Every so often, someone thinks we are ruining the kids by letting them sign. But one look at my kids and you can see that they are so not ruined, I almost don’t even have to defend my philosophy any more.

In the Spanish immersion class I mentioned before, the students were all white. And there was a waiting list a mile long to get kids in to the program, which ran from Kindergarten through grade 5. The school also had an ELL/ESL program. Those students were not white. Those students were labeled “at-risk.” You know, because they speak Spanish (or one of the other forty-plus languages spoken in that region).

In my experiences, students who are ELL/ESL/LEP (limited English proficient) are targeted for special intervention and pulled out of class for direct instruction or tutoring by an ELL/ESL teacher. These classrooms are usually small. The teacher’s caseload is usually quite sizable. The environment is far from “language rich.” The students are tested and probed often. This is called “progress monitoring,” but I think we should call it “How to be an Acceptable American Student in 1000 Data Sheets.” Language richness and context don’t fit on data sheets. English English English.

In the U.S., the students most likely to be the most naturally bilingual are the ones whose bilingualism is the least likely to be celebrated. What’s more, the United States of America has more monolingual “experts” on bilingual education than any other country in the world.*  This is what we tell ELL/ESL kids: If your first language is not English, you get pulled out of your class. You get removed from a print-rich, language-rich, context-rich environment. Eventually you’ll figure out that you are “at risk.” Because even though English is not your first language, you are not stupid, and you can figure it out. Your friends? They can go to an immersion class. Their budding bilingualism is an asset. They will be Leaders, because ours is increasingly a bilingual world. But the English speakers are the rule makers, so your bilingualism is still a liability

*Bahruth, 2004  Perspectives on Teaching English Language Learners.  Heath/Serrano (Eds.)  Newberry, FL:  Glanzer Press.

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