If you’re voting for race equity this fall, here is how language learners fit in

“[T]here is nothing more cultural about us as humans than the use of our home language. Linguistic identity is a crucial aspect of who we are…the intentionality of the linguistic focus is demonstrated equally to what we stereotypically think about culture.” Sharroky Hollie begins his book—Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning—by explaining why language is part of a culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy.

Additionally, Canadian researcher Allison Crump developed an offshoot of critical race theory called critical language and race theory. She argues that race, racism, and racialization intersect with issues of language, belonging, and identity. We often see this in restrictive language policies, as written by Patricia Gandara et al, especially when we consider the early history of the United States in “removing” language from American Indians and African slaves. This education debt accumulated to multilingual learners continues to grow in U.S. schools.

Speaking English has become synonymous with being American. When students come to school with linguistic identities other than English, the U.S. has labeled them as “Limited English Proficient” or “English Learner,” relegating students outside the community of belonging and seeing their language as a problem. What is your linguistic identity? Does your family speak a language other than English? Did you learn it and do you actively practice it? Do you find it valuable, as a right and resource for yourself and others?

Linguistic identities intersect with racialized identities. Although race is a socially constructed concept, it must be named and examined in order to understand how policies and practices affect, in this case, emerging multilingual learners.

Critical language and race theory draw on three elements:

  1. Racism is ordinary and unchallenged in American society
  2. Intersectionality matters: race and language in this case
  3. Counter-storytelling is imperative to combat this narrative

We have anecdotes of students being identified as English Learners based on their last name, what they look like, or an accent, which connects to the racism element. Some may argue that not passing the language screener is what prompts identification. However, the majority of identified ELs are born in the U.S., and Standard English is associated with Whiteness, therefore race and language intersect even if the student is a “born and bred American.” Opportunities to share the importance and benefits of bi- and multilingualism in a workforce that is getting older and diversifying can counter the narrative that speaking English is the only way to be successful in the U.S.

The Minnesota Reality

Identified English Learners (EL) continue to be the fastest-growing student group in Minnesota-—speaking more than 250 languages—and may comprise a majority in some schools and districts. However, according to the MN Department of Education, 96 precent of Minnesota teachers are white, and a survey of district leaders indicates that only 38 percent of districts think teachers are prepared to teach ELs.

This school year, progress toward English language proficiency is now included in federal accountability for schools and districts. At the end of August, 70 schools were identified for state support because they are not achieving the state goal of 85 percent of ELs making progress toward English proficiency. It is important to note that schools eligible for identification must have at least 20 ELs, so there could be many more schools and districts with ELs who are not making progress toward English language proficiency.

Beyond school accountability, state law celebrates bi- and multilingualism through language literacy seals upon graduation. However, the opportunity is up to the school/district’s capacity and is more meaningful if students have formal language education. Minnesota state law also requires that all teachers are prepared and developed throughout their career to support the language development of their students. However, adequate funding and support has not been provided to ensure this reality. Such celebration is colliding with school accountability, highlighting the urgent need for funding, support, and new imagination in Minnesota schools.

This fall, there are many elections that affect every level of governance: city council all the way to U.S. Senator. School boards and state representation are well-positioned to influence the education system’s ability to adequately support our emerging multilingual learners. State representatives and the Governor have authority to craft an education budget that accurately supports students.

Posing Questions to Candidates

As your civic duty, we encourage you to consider this student population in your candidate research and interactions. Asking questions at forums or directly to candidates at your door or in your inbox can get them to not only think about EMLs but publicly promise to support the next generation of Minnesotans.

  • If elected/re-elected, how will you work with your local school district(s) to address critical education funding and policy issues especially for English learners?
  • How do you see language education within the larger academic system, is it a worthwhile discipline to develop bi- and multilingualism?
  • Considering English learners are the fastest-growing student group, how should teacher preparation and development respond to these unique student needs?


Posted in 2018 Election, EL, Emerging Multilingual Learners Network, Our Voices

Aara Johnson View posts by Aara Johnson

Aara Johnson collaborates with English Learner teachers, coordinators, and communities to strengthen English Language Development and advocate for native language development and multilingualism for all Minnesota students.
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