Supporting Students Who Speak Low Incidence Languages
We all know that Dual Language Education (DLE) is the only research-based program that closes the opportunity gap for students who enter school identified as Emergent Bilinguals. Furthermore, Dual Language Education allows students whose home language is the Language Other Than English (LOTE) to maintain and grow the language most connected to their home identities and home culture. It allows students the opportunity to maintain connections to family members who do not speak English and to the community associated with their home language. Finally, DLE demonstrates to our language minority students that who they are matters to us as a school community. However, even in those districts that fully understand the power of Dual Language Education, for the powers that be to make such programs available to students, a critical mass of students who speak the Language Other Than English (LOTE) must be present. So what happens to students who speak languages that are low in incidence in the district?
Unfortunately, students who speak low incidence languages at home are often forgotten in the shuffle, quietly placed in ESL programs that we know do not work. And why wouldn’t they be forgotten? In a small school district of 1,000 students, perhaps 1 or 2 students speak a particular, low incidence language. Together, they comprise less than 1% of the students in what is usually an already overburdened, understaffed school district. However, for those 1 or 2 students, the percentage of students whose linguistic repertoire is forgotten is 100%. Put simply, nationwide, we fail to value nearly if not 100% of the students who speak the 1,333 languages spoken in the United States when those languages are not high incidence at the schools the students attend.
The impact on our students is inexcusable. We already know that ESL programs, on average, do not close the opportunity gap for language minority students. But even more devastating is the psychological impact. Jim Cummins states that by devaluing students’ home language abilities, we communicate to students that they are deficient and incapable of learning. Students in turn, “live down” to these expectations. Furthermore, students, when not valued for their linguistic capital, often try to bury their own identities in favor of the dominant culture or in favor of the higher incidence languages. For example, I once spoke to a distraught parent from Lebanon who told me that her daughter refused to speak Arabic because “it’s not as important as Spanish.” Spanish was in fact a high incidence language at her school and thus, overshadowed this child’s identity. This story is not unique. My own daughter once told me that she didn’t want to continue developing her language skills in our home language, Tamil, because “nobody speaks it.” She too preferred to learn Spanish in lieu of rather than in addition to her first language. Hearing her say this broke my heart as language and identity go hand in hand. In effect, when students reject their home language, they reject their families, their cultures, and themselves.
Fortunately, there is a movement to acknowledge all of our students’ linguistic capital. The Seal of Biliteracy is one way that states across the country are acknowledging and valuing the accomplishments of our bilingual and biliterate high school graduates regardless of language incidence at students’ particular schools. Many states have even developed pathway awards for students so that they can value their emerging linguistic skills when they are still in elementary and middle school. But what are we, as educators, doing to help our Emergent Bilingual students receive these awards, especially when their home languages are low incidence? Many of our students, even if they are able to maintain a bilingual self-identity by speaking their home language with family members, do not receive the academic instruction in their language that is needed to receive the Seal of Biliteracy. Imagine the devastation students must feel when we strip them of their bilingual self-identity by denying them the recognition of being bilingual. How then do we help our students value and grow their home languages to such an extent that they become truly bilingual and biliterate?
There is no easy answer to this question. At a minimum, we need to encourage our linguistic minority families to maintain and grow their home languages in all four domains (speaking, listening, reading, and writing), and we need to have honest conversations with our students about why it is important to value one’s own identity, including one’s linguistic identity. These conversations should help students recognize that there are many others globally who speak the same language even if our students are the only ones at their respective schools. Additionally, we may create opportunities for families across the district who speak the same low-incidence languages to connect with one another so that they can help each other. Also, we can partner with community members who can teach our students their home language. Finally, we can seek the help of both domestic and international organizations that routinely provide virtual opportunities for students to develop their language skills.
With some creativity, we can help our students who speak low-incidence languages maximize their potential. After all, isn’t that what we as educators are supposed to do?