Last month, the United Nations and people around the globe celebrated International Mother Language Day by focusing on the movements to restore the status of indigenous and heritage languages and other mother tongues, and especially their capacity to improve educational outcomes through increased and improved delivery of instruction.
Institutional recognition of these languages as a measurable asset is also an important step in the process. In the U.S., one of the most significant developments in this field has been the widespread adoption of the Seal of Biliteracy. North Dakota has just the more than 30 other states that offer high schoolers the chance to showcase their second-language skills through the program. However, the popularity of the Seal has coincided with growing concern that variations in its implementation are causing it to become more of an opportunity for privileged English speakers to parade their basic world language skills than for marginalized English learners to prove the value of their heritage language skills combined with English proficiency, as was the original intention.
Education Week recently published a report entitled, “The Truth About Bilingualism: It's Only for Some Students.” The article was largely based on research out of Georgetown University which found, among other criticisms, that states are promoting “the language learning of middle- and upper-middle class students as an achievement, while the potential bilingualism of Latinx and other students is more of an afterthought,” with the Seal being “primarily aimed at promoting foreign or world language education.”
This criticism may well be justified but it tells us more about prevailing attitudes to educational reform than it does about bias in the implementation of the Seal. Despite years of No Child Left Behind rhetoric, there is little political will to remedy the inequitable funding of our public schools.
Here, in California, some of us still remember the smear campaign that effectively banned mother-tongue education in the state for 20 years. Bilingual education was portrayed as “ghettoizing” our education system by supporters of Proposition 227, the passing of which then deprived millions of English learners with heritage languages the chance to keep up with their English-speaking peers.
The driving force behind the creation of the Seal of Biliteracy was Californians Together, an organization with a long history of grassroots campaigning for minorities in the state with close ties to the California Association for Bilingual Education. Indeed, the decision to use the less-known term “biliteracy” instead of the more common “Bilingualism” was no doubt influenced by the unfortunate stigmatizing of the term “Bilingual” resulting form the campaign against bilingual education in California, and subsequently in other states across the nation.
The reality has been that to garner support and funding for bilingual programs it has been necessary to package them as beneficial for all of society, especially the influential, predominantly white, politically-active middle classes.
Promoters of world language education face another dilemma in that they have to make the economic argument in order to win support and funding. It seems that nobody thinks it’s worth understanding Dostoyevsky, Camus, Zhang Ailing, or Garcia Marquez in their native tongue warrants educational investment, but learning languages for national security or to encourage trade are a different ballgame.
Ideally, we’d all have the foresight to recognize that an equitable education system, where the linguistic and other skills of all members of society were equally valued. But, that’s not the case. The reality is that championing the rights of English learners is not politically exigent so campaigners for language education and educational equity have learned to take a pragmatic approach.