During the past two years, as the nation has faced both a global pandemic and an increase in domestic unrest, the need to communicate in all of America’s languages—all the languages spoken across the country—has become even more apparent.
Language access has become a central challenge to the equitable provision of health care, to matters of civil justice, and to the basic operations of our civic institutions.
Fortunately, at a time when so much is at stake, language education is evolving to provide better service to more learners of every background, and doing so more efficiently than ever before.
To help connect educational innovations with the learners who want and need them most, the America’s Languages Working Group is now launching a brand new, first-of-its-kind online resource. The America’s Languages Portal: Model Programs and Practices Advancing Access and Equity in U.S. Language Education (www.americaslanguages.org) is a registry of programs that can be emulated and adapted by on-the-ground efforts across the country to introduce students from diverse populations to effective language instruction.
The Portal collects advances in PreK-12, college and university, and community-based language education, specifically the advances that improve access to more of the nation’s neglected learners and languages.
The Portal is intended to prove that it is possible, even feasible, to provide the language and intercultural skills the country needs to address critical social justice issues at home as well as those directed at a more collaborative, interdependent and just world. In so doing, it will illustrate the aspirations and achievements of the language profession: broader and more equitable access, accountability in programming and instruction, and a more diverse portfolio of language offerings.
In particular, the Portal focuses on programs that aspire to full and equal access for Black communities and People of Color, economically disadvantaged learners in rural and inner-city communities; Latinx populations, including English Learners; and Native American, heritage, immigrant, and refugee communities.
The America’s Languages Working Group was first convened by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to help support the recommendation of its 2017 report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education in the 21st Century. The Working Group now comprises leaders and stakeholders across the language enterprise—from government; industry; education; NGOs; and Native American and heritage, immigrant and refugee communities—all of whom volunteer their time to strengthen language education.
Construction of the website began in 2019, with leadership from the American Councils for International Education, one of the organizations represented in its membership. Earlier this year, the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning and the Texas Language Center at the University of Texas at Austin assumed day-to-day operations of the site. All of this work has proceeded with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“This Portal is the product of an unprecedented collaboration between the leaders who make up the Working Group, American Councils for International Education, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Mellon Foundation,” says John Tessitore, chair of the Working Group. “Our hope is that the site will inspire groundswell of more accessible and more effective programming across the country, when teachers and funders see what’s possible.”
The Portal includes extended descriptions of exemplary programs, collected through an open and continuing selection process. Any program may apply that feels it meets the criteria defining increased access. The process of selecting programs to be listed in the Portal is the responsibility of a cadre of “America’s Languages Fellows”—distinguished teachers, administrators and researchers appointed by the Working Group—who must approve the model programs of every size and any location to appear in the Portal.
“This is a living resource,” Tessitore says. “We are launching the website with a limited number of programs in the database so that the language community can see the benefits of the approach. Over the next eight to twelve months, we will be adding hundreds more programs and will be able to offer a much more complete picture of language access in America.”
Educators at every level will be able to visit the site for contacts, inspiration, and successful models for their own work, as may policy makers and funders interested in advancing access to language education in the U.S.
The Portal’s emphasis on Native American language and heritage language programs, often overlooked in academic settings, is among its most innovative features.
“The Portal is a new way to highlight the vibrancy and breadth of Native American language revitalization efforts,” says Leslie Harper, President of the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs. “There are hundreds of distinct Native American Languages across the U.S., each unique in context and approach to language sustenance. We hope the Portal provides an opportunity to elevate the visibility and determination of Native American language schools and community programs, and generates new connections."
“This site provides the most comprehensive landscape of heritage languages in higher ed, K-12, and community-based institutions, the three main pillars of America's languages programs,” says Tommy Lu of the Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools. “We now have a central site where all heritage language programs can be documented, located, and shared. It is not a competition, it is the largest collaboration project so far."
Ultimately, the Portal reframes language education as a vital component of social justice and equity.
“Our political system, our justice system, our health care system, our communities cannot function properly If we cannot communicate with each other,” says Richard Brecht, Director of the Portal project and Co-Director of the American Councils Research Center. “What the Working Group is trying to prove with this website is that we can meet the needs of all Americans, whether they are born here or abroad, whether they grew up in rural towns, big cities, or on Native lands. Everyone can and should have access to quality language education, and the new Portal will offer concrete examples of how to make that happen.”