COMMENTARY: Pushing the Dialogue Around Multilingualism

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Ryan Pontier is the co-chair of LULAC Florida Government and Media Relations Committee, president of the Early Childhood Bilingual Education Council for LULAC Florida, and a visiting assistant professor at Florida International University’s School of Education & Human Development

We live in a multilingual world. It doesn’t always seem—or sound—like it, especially if you live in isolated areas of the United States, but more than half of the planet’s population uses two or more languages. Perhaps this growing population is one reason that the benefits of bilingualism have become more recognized—so much so that certain forms of bilingual education are now considered to be in the process of gentrification. That’s because bilingual schooling has become so popular among families with privilege and power that they may end up pushing out the vulnerable students those language programs were intended to serve.

Ryan Pontier.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting/conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) in Orlando, Florida. The conference itself is a celebration of bilingualism in education, focusing on “representing bilingual/multilingual students and bilingual education professionals.” To that end, its mission explicitly includes “[advocating] for educational equity and excellence for bilingual/multilingual students in a global society.” Organizations such as NABE are critical to pushing the general agenda of bilingual education and bilingualism, but I want to suggest that there is more to be done.

One area for improvement is in the way that students learning one or more languages are characterized and categorized. In my work as a bilingual education professor, consultant, and advocate, I’m trying to steer the conversation away from “ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] students,” “LEP [Limited English Proficient] kids,” and even “English learners,” and toward either “emergent bilinguals” or “bi/multilingual students.”

If we are working with, referring to, or hearing from people using more than two languages, then why are we not seeing them this way? Why do we speak from a one-sided (e.g., English), deficit perspective (e.g., “limited”), only highlighting what has not yet been learned? In using a strengths-based approach, which stands in contrast to a deficit perspective, when we note that somebody is an “emergent bilingual” in a school setting, we acknowledge that they are at the beginning stages of developing their bilingualism. We immediately point out that at least two languages are at play. Similarly, when we note that somebody is multilingual, we acknowledge that they can—and do—express themselves in uniquely different, more nuanced, and arguably more creative ways than monolinguals.

In fact, Florida is a great place to see this play out. For example, a recent billboard announced, “Oye,my friend, aquí temenos tu perfect match” for a new car. This use of language resonated with many local residents, who saw their language privileged instead of ridiculed. This example has lessons for other parts of the world, too. Imagine students regularly hearing the way they use language outside of school inside of school. Imagine how they might feel positively inspired and motivated by such a simple act. Imagine the successes when these same students skillfully use only one language at a time because they are conversing with someone who can only speak one language. Imagine the empowerment realized when students are taught to and respected for being bi/multilingual, drawing on all of their language skills without so strictly adhering to some arbitrarily valued separation of languages.

When we are recognized for our strengths, we tend to engage with less friction. A more engaged population leads to greater production.

Let’s continue to hold annual conferences that focus on bi/multilingualism and bi/multilingual education, but let’s also be explicit about how we include everyone’s linguistic strengths while simultaneously pushing the conversation on what it means to be bi/multilingual.

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