Words Matter – The Case for Shifting to “Emergent Bilingual”

Throughout IDRA’s almost five decades, we have paid close attention to how we speak about people in terms of race or ethnicity, gender, etc. Words matter.

Almost 5 million students in U.S. public schools are learning English as a second language. That’s over 10% of the student population. The number almost doubled over the last 15 years. IDRA recently took another look at the terminology used to identify these students and the implications of using certain labels.

Most state policies refer to students with a first language other than English as English learners or English language learners, while 10, including Texas, use some form of limited English proficient students (LEP).* The Texas Education Agency also uses English learners in documents. At first glance, these labels may seem neutral and plainly descriptive; however a closer inspection reveals that these terms are deficit-based, that is, they define students by the knowledge they lack, rather than the strengths and abilities they already bring into the classroom.

Such terms can affect how we understand students and their potential. They can cause us to give English more legitimacy and power than a student’s first language. Additionally, because of the language used to define students, many may see them as a needy, expensive to educate, monolithic group, rather than a diverse group of students who represent a necessary resource and asset.

Timeline with terms used in federal policy for English learners

In Texas, for example, almost one in five students are designated English learners. Labeling almost 20% of Texas students as limited English proficient students or English learners can negatively affect how policymakers and educators measure those students’ potential. It starts with a deficit understanding of their abilities, labels them in terms of a cost that schools struggle to afford, funnels them into particular pathways according to perceptions, and often limits their access to critical learning opportunities, such as college-level coursework (Martinez, 2018). Because emergent bilingual students are seldom viewed as college material, only one in 10 are deemed college ready at graduation (TEA, 2018).

IDRA believes in the value of bilingualism and biculturalism. Schools must protect the civil rights of all students by preserving and celebrating the cultures and experiences tied to the diverse languages students bring into the classroom. For these reasons, IDRA prefers using the term emergent bilingual students.

Coined and popularized by Dr. Ofelia García in 2008, emergent bilingual focuses on the unique potential for bilingualism possessed by students who are learning English in school. This terminology demands that we take an asset-based view of the capabilities of emergent bilingual students, who are simultaneously acquiring a new set of linguistic capabilities in school and building on the valuable knowledge of their first language.

By adopting the emergent bilingual distinction, we hope that education stakeholders at all levels begin to imagine classrooms where linguistic diversity is praised rather than shunned, and where students are intentionally invited to leverage their full linguistic and social repertoire in all learning environments (Ascenzi-Moreno, 2017). To propel this change, IDRA also is working with state lawmakers and education agencies, school districts and community members to encourage the use of the term emergent bilingual in state law, administrative codes and at the school level.

* In some regions of the country, the term “dual language” learner is used, which can be confused with the instructional program that is also called “dual language.”


Ascenzi-Moreno, L. (Fall 2017). From Deficit to Diversity: How Teachers of Recently Arrived Emergent Bilinguals Negotiate Ideological and Pedagogical Change.Schools: Studies in Education, Vol. 14, No. 2.

City University of New York. (2019). Vision statement – Emergent Bilinguals: Emergence, Dynamic Bilingualism, and Dynamic Development. CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals.

Education Commission of the States. (2020). 50-State Comparison: English Learner Policies – How is “English learner” defined in state policy? webpage.

García, O., Kleifgen, J.A., & Falchi, L. (2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals. Equity Matters: Research Review, No. 1.

Martínez, R.A. (2018). Beyond the “English Learner” Label: Recognizing the Richness of Bi/Multilingual Students’ Linguistic Repertoires. The Reading Teacher.

Rosetta Stone. (2020). Emergent Bilinguals Are the Future. Rosetta Stone.

Texas Education Agency. (2020). 2020 Comprehensive Biennial Report on Texas Public Schools. Austin, Texas: TEA.

Araceli García is an IDRA Education Policy Fellow. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at [email protected]

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]


  1. As a board member of the National Network for Early Language Learning and a bilingual/multicultural educator for more than 40 years, I would like to help in any way to possible to make the term emergent bilingual a term used not only for students entering school speaking languages other than English, but to support English speakers who are in dual language or immersion programs.

    As a board member of the National Network for Early Language Learning and a bilingual/multicultural educator for more than 40 years, I would like to help in any way to possible to make the term emergent bilingual a term used not only for students entering school speaking languages other than English, but for English speakers who are in dual language or immersion programs.
    All students who are working in two languages during the academic day need specific support in their second language. I think that providing “sheltered second language” instruction will increase participation in dual language programs for English speakers from economically challenged communities, and thereby give those students a skillset that will provide them opportunities as global citizens. It will also encourage diversity in our dual language programs and therefore give all of our emergent bilingual students a chance to get to know and become friends with students from different ethnic backgrounds.
    As a teacher and resident of the Chicago area, I have seen how schools support segregation in an “attempt to help students.” Too many schools unintentionally segregate students of different races based on “home language” usage. Is it any wonder that students who go to school “together” but never sit together in the cafeteria or have an opportunity to be in the same classrooms end up in rival gangs?
    By supporting the term emergent bilingual to include students who are learning English as a second language as well as their English-speaking peers who are learning the second target language, we will acknowledge the importance and effort it takes to become a bilingual citizen, and make our great nation stronger than it has ever been.

  2. My fear is that many of our students are not truly bilingual. They are losing their mother tongue and culture. I would like to see them become truly bilingual and bicultural. We need to find ways to make this happen. My hope and dream is that they are able to embrace this wonderful opportunity to be part of two cultures and truly speak, read, write, and understand at least two languages.

  3. If you emigrate to another country it is courteous to adapt to your host country’s culture and language.
    If the culture and language of your host country is not to your liking, go home.

  4. Mickey is correct. Even when they adopt the culture and language, immigrants will form colonies within the host nation. While some might think that means quaint restaurants a la Little Italy, in large demographic numbers it means take over of the host nation and subjugation of the native born. Ask the Native Americans.

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