Who doesn’t like elephants? Smart, deliberate, imposing – real elephants are fascinating. Metaphorical ones, especially those that crowd our rooms, are frightening, maybe because they’re right in the room with us, leaving us to evade tough discussions. In the last month, two publications push a very big elephant right into the middle of the Biliteracy room. The Frameworks Institute published When More Means Less, its examination of how the American public perceives Dual Language Immersion; The Atlantic published Conor Williams’ essay, The Intrusion of White Families into Bilingual Schools. So, an elephant is on the loose: whose programs are these? For whom is the Seal intended, and who does it really benefit? There are other elephants in this herd – and we’ll get to those.

Let me also stipulate that while my own linguistic and ethnic background is probably no more or less complicated than anyone else’s in the America of the 21st Century, my family is, by any definition, white. There are a lot of us white bilinguals, to be sure, but white we are. But framing the Seal, and Dual Language Immersion programs, solely in terms of identity, poses two terrible risks: first, some of the other elephants in the identity herd have gone rogue. We live in a political climate where all sorts divisions among us are being used to justify terrible actions and policies. Labeling the Seal and Dual Language as belonging to any one group, whatever the historical and legal basis, plays directly into the politics of division and exclusion.

We live in a political climate where all sorts divisions among us are being used to justify terrible actions and policies.

The second risk is that we will fall back into the trap of bilingual education: that the only legitimate purpose of programs for English Learners is to teach them English as rapidly as possible, without any intention to retain the language of home, family, and community, and without any regard for the indisputable cognitive, educational, and employment benefits of biliteracy. We fought bitterly in the late 80s and early 90s against the incursions of the anti-Bilingual education movement, losing in California, Arizona, and elsewhere. In the generation since, the educational community has honed Dual Language programs, and the advocacy community – composed of groups of diverse political, linguistic, and ethnic makeups – has successfully reclaimed bilingual education for all. Witness the passage of Proposition 58, in California, or the recent court decision to allow the teaching of Latino studies in Arizona.

That’s not to say that we’ve won everywhere, but it’s worth remembering that the economic and cognitive benefits of biliteracy are well accepted in the public eye – this is one of the findings of When More Means Less. America has changed, and continues to change. Welcoming people of diverse backgrounds into the country, and into our educational programs, is one of our strengths.

At the Joint National Committee for Languages, we articulate the following language policy position: Everyone should become literate in English; Everyone should have the opportunity to become literate, and to pass that literacy on, in their home language, if they so desire; and all children should have the opportunity to learn additional languages. The Seal of Biliteracy recognizes the possibilities of languages in the 21st century, and benefits all. We are fully committed to this ideal.

America has changed, and continues to change.

Bill Rivers
Author: Bill Rivers

Dr. Bill Rivers has more than 25 years of leadership experience in culture and language for economic development and national security, with expertise in the private, public, and non-profits sectors, in research, assessment, program evaluation, policy development and advocacy. Before joining JNCL-NCLIS, he served as Chief Scientist at Integrated Training Solutions, Inc., a small business in Arlington, Virginia. While at ITS, he served in a contractor role as the Chief Linguist of the National Language Service Corps. Prior to working at ITS, he was co-founder of the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland.

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