This spring, our personal and professional lives were complicated by the unknown. We learned about flexibility and new routines. Some of us still feel overwhelmed. In spite of these realities, it is time to think about strategies for post-pandemic advocacy for languages and language programs.
When the pandemic fades, priorities will be transformed. With students falling behind in the core subjects, language learning is likely to be scrutinized and will be vulnerable. Even mainstay language study in the U.S.’s default second language—namely Spanish— is likely to suffer.
Going forward, there will be a justifiable focus on public health that may overshadow the importance of languages and communication in our school curricula and in society at large. Nevertheless, knowing multiple languages allows individuals to interpret multisource information more accurately in moments of need. We must emphasize the importance of human communication across cultures, neighborhoods, and borders. Future problem solving has to harness the power of multiple languages and cultures as well as the sciences. Broad approaches will be crucial to equity and access.
Language professionals need to work together to remind everyone that increased linguistic knowledge and intercultural competence during times of crisis are essential:
• to improve the speed and clarity of cross-cultural and transnational communication.
• to support coordinated global responses to crises.
• to debunk myths and falsehoods that circulate during crises and put people at risk.
• To reach limited-English-speaking populations in the U.S. and beyond that live in relative isolation.
• to communicate public health information effectively to non-English-speaking individuals in the U.S.
As the pandemic wanes, Spanish teachers may have a special role to play as language advocates going forward. On a daily basis, I interact with Spanish teachers and professors of all educational levels. In general, Spanish teachers are quick to confess that their colleagues in French, German, and the less commonly taught languages are better advocates due to longstanding programmatic pressures to survive. With the growth of Spanish programs over the last 20 years in the U.S., Spanish instructors have become accustomed to students filling their classes.
Over the last few years, enrollment in Spanish in higher education has been on the decline. Many Spanish teachers now realize that they need to take a page from the playbook of those who teach other languages.
In January 2020, the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP), Sigma Delta Pi (National Collegiate Hispanic Honor Society), and Vista Higher Learning (VHL) conducted a survey about language advocacy. We received over 1,600 responses from Spanish teachers of all levels (K–16+). The survey was distributed via email and posted on social media.
The survey focused on advocacy and the Spanish teacher. We asked teachers how they describe themselves as advocates for Spanish language learning in the U.S. Almost 49% indicated that they wanted to learn and do more advocacy, and 44% self-identified as experienced or active advocates. Only 7% stated that they were not interested in advocating for Spanish. Notably, almost half of the respondents wanted to learn more. Over 900 respondents volunteered their email addresses for follow-up about advocacy at the end of the survey.
Despite the changes caused by the coronavirus, I would like to suggest that the cohort of Spanish teachers who expressed the desire to do more advocacy will remain steadfast when the pandemic is over.
The resilience and heart of language teachers during COVID-19 have been palpable and inspiring on social media, online, and in correspondence. Spanish teachers believe in language education and bilingualism to help solve problems for a better world.
As the pandemic fades, language professionals will organize advocacy for languages. It will be crucial to include students, parents, administrators, legislators, and business and community leaders, among others, to ensure that a deep knowledge of languages and cultures is not absent from the next crisis. Languages cannot be left out of our post-COVID-19 experience. Sí, ¡se puede!
Sheri Spaine Long is executive director of the AATSP.