Language News

How American Schools Can Empower Multilingual Students

March 17, 2016
Placeholder image

According to the US Census Bureau, 21 percent of Americans reported speaking a language other than English at home in 2015.

Chinese. Arabic. Spanish. It's more likely than ever to hear a student chatting away in one of these languages in the hallways and classrooms at school. Where English was once the only language spoken, American schools today have transformed to reflect the changes in our own society.

The US population as a whole is increasingly multilingual: According to the US Census Bureau, 21 percent of Americans reported speaking a language other than English at home in 2015 a figure that has doubled since 1990 and is anticipated to grow to 40 percent by 2030. Language communities like Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, and Urdu have grown by double digits across the country.

Multilingual students are now entering schools in droves sometimes without the same level of English skills as their peers. While many committed teachers and schools have taken strides to fully integrate their multilingual students, they are often underserved in an educational environment with competing demands and rarely receive the chance to express themselves in their native language or share their cultural background with their classmates.

Further, multiple studies have uncovered a correlation between academic performance and the extent to which a native language is integrated into the school curriculum, emphasizing why multilingual students may tend to underperform academically.

Teachers and administrators can take the first step to empower all of their multilingual students to succeed no matter their native language and embrace the cultural richness and linguistic diversity they bring to the student body.

Dual-language immersion programs offer one of the most valuable methods of closing the gap on academic performance between native English speakers and non-native English speakers. A four-year study on dual-language immersion students in Portland Public Schools revealed that students in the program performed an entire grade year ahead in English-language reading by the eighth grade than their non-immersion peers: an outstanding gain for this traditionally underserved population.

Advocacy groups like the D.C. Language Immersion Project have compiled resources to make the case for dual-language programs in your school and how to get started. Dual language programs not only benefit your multilingual students, but will also give other students the chance to develop foreign language skills that are essential for global competency.

What could be better than exposing your students whether English speakers or not to a native speaker and professional teacher of two of the world's most critical languages? The US Department of State makes this possible through the Teachers of Critical Languages Program (TCLP) by matching Egyptian and Chinese teachers with schools across the US for an academic year.

Virtual exchange programs and teaching resources from organizations such as the Qatar Foundation's I Speak Arabic initiative and the 100,000 Strong Foundation can further enhance programming so that language lessons can continue well beyond the stay of a hosted teacher.

For schools with pockets of Arabic and Chinese speakers, hosting an Egyptian or Chinese teacher could result in increased use of students using their native language at school, greater acceptance of the language within the school community, and a budding interest in Chinese and Arabic culture.

Consider bringing high school exchange students from traditionally harder-to-navigate countries to your school for an academic year. Just like exchange teachers, exchange students can increase the language and cultural diversity in the classroom and help make the language groups in your school feel inclusive and affirmed.

Programs like the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) and the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) elect exceptional students from across the Muslim world and the former Soviet Union to spend a year living and studying in a local high school in the US These students are often ambassadors for their home country and their home language and could bolster your efforts to increase inclusion of a language in your school.

Many if not the majority of multilingual students have never taken a formal language course for their language other than English and their language skills are rarely reflected on their high school transcripts.

A new movement is working to change that. Your school can provide testing opportunities like the National Examination of World Languages, which is endorsed by the College Board (known for its AP portfolio), for multilingual students of less common languages to earn college credit for their native languages and prepare to enter the global workforce with a distinct (and certified!) advantage.

Give students the option to write in their first language for their school newspaper or to read a book in their native language and share a summary in English with their classmates. Facilitate classroom discussions that affirm the multilingual nature of students to make sure they feel accepted and valued. Host a multilingual open mic night where students can read poetry and short stories from other countries or a cultural fair that showcases music, cuisine, dance, and customs from another country.

Even taking simple steps like posting multilingual signs directing visitors around school and incorporating various greetings that reflect the languages spoken at school in official communications can go a long way in welcoming your diverse language communities.

Instead of the typical field trip or afterschool activity, consider the many other types of community outreach activities your school can participate in. Develop partnerships with elementary schools where multilingual students can receive credit or volunteer hours for teaching elementary school kids their first language.

Think about the multicultural nature of your own town or city: plan trips to ethnic restaurants and meet with the chef; start a conversation with diaspora organizations; or host an international dinner for those who need a meal. If you have enough multilingual students with certain language skills, you could even organize volunteer projects for them to outreach to that specific language community.

What steps have you or your school taken to empower multilingual students? Share with us on Twitter #LanguageMatters