Valuing Our English Language Learners by Learning to Listen

When I lived overseas, I remember wishing desperately that people would understand that I was intelligent. I wanted to become fluent in Czech and carried my dictionary with me everywhere, looking up every word I saw. But as a human, you want to converse with nuance and ease. Without a dictionary or struggle for each word. With spontaneity and grace. There is an overwhelming desire to prove yourself and to be open to those around you, but you’re limited in expressing yourself by the extent of your language ability.

As a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs), my experience living abroad resonates with the ELL experience here in North Carolina. They serve as global ambassadors, and the increasing diversity in our schools is an opportunity to listen first, to understand what is being said, and to open ourselves to new values.

Diversity Isn’t Going Away

According to the World Population Prospects, 80 percent of teachers believe there is value in students’ having the ability to understand other countries and cultures. Far fewer (30 percent) say they actually incorporate material about other countries and cultures into their instruction. Most claim this is due to a lack of resources, but they forget about our human resources, namely, the rising numbers of English Language Learners (ELLs) in our schools.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s population projections, 2044 is pegged by as the “crossover year,” the time when no single racial or ethnic group will comprise a majority. In only two years, non-Hispanic whites will be a majority-minority in U.S. schools. ELLs, and the more than 150 languages they speak, have grown 60 percent in the last decade–versus 7 percent for the general student population–and are projected to comprise half of all public school students by 2020.

Diversity is not going away, but one of the first things our country’s leadership did in 2017 was shut down the White House Spanish language site, sending a disheartening message to our Spanish-language speakers. We are a country whose counterterror war involves 39 percent of the world’s countries, and in which we are lacking 41 ambassadors worldwide. This stark absence of, and need for, diplomacy means that everyone needs to be a diplomat at some level, skilled in conversation, active listening, and linguistic insight.

Language as a Critical Competency

While we push students to be college and career ready with globalized experiences, funding is tenuous for world-language teachers, and United States language graduation requirements are minimal. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the global economy is shifting away from the English-speaking world, and understanding another language is a priceless window into cultural norms for conducting business. Let’s treat language as critically as we do competency in English and math, with projects and learning that span communities and continents, to supersede physical walls and boundaries.

In Russian, a pochemuchka is someone who asks a lot of questions, is curious, evaluates information, and exhibits divergent thinking, a fitting alignment with Socrates’ claim that “wisdom begins with wonder.” Channel your inner pochemuchka with a nod to Socrates and let’s wonder more courageously about our own assumptions in light of what true global-ready, literate, and educated citizens look like. Let’s investigate how we can share our ELL students’ skills and knowledge with all students in our schools and promote their multifaceted experiences to support both their learning experiences and those of all students.

Redefining College and Career Readiness

Some bilingual students who are able to speak, read, write, and understand language at high levels (think highly touted dual immersion programs) are hailed as honors students, yet the majority of ELL students are more likely to be categorized as uneducated and in need of extra assistance.

In Siberian Yupik, nangaghalleq is the belief that something unique exists in every living and nonliving thing. Our default deficit mindset strips away the powerful multilingual abilities of our ELL students, while framing their skills as a threat. Let’s expand our narrow views of what comprises literate, global-ready, educated citizens, and discover each student’s nangaghalleq. Consider a Seal of Biliteracy if your school or district doesn’t offer one.

Aretein Greek is the powerful idea of bringing the very best version of yourself to everything you do, something that, unlike the external recognition of nangaghalleq, comes from within ourselves. How are we allowing our ELLs to develop and exemplify this in our classrooms and communities? Which of our unconscious or conscious biases prevent students from living with arete? Let’s welcome our ELL students as carriers of unique and valuable 21st-century skills rather than as a threat to our community norms.

In the words of Atticus:
“Watch carefully,
the magic that occurs,
when you give a person,
just enough comfort,
to be themselves.”

Acculturate Instead of Assimilate

Think of your English Language Learners. Are they invisible, visible, or masters at traversing between the two? Which level of visibility do we consider more useful and when? Which do we encourage most? What do you consider a “safe space” for our students building new lives with us, bridging their past with our influences on their present? How does that play out in our classrooms?

Many of our language learners face a triple responsibility of navigating daily between languages, cultures, and the past and present. They may still have emotional ties to the past and live tenuously in the present, in turn curtailing their mental reserves to think about the future. Language might just be that one link, integral to the core of their being, a rich source of insight into how their experiences have both molded them and prepared them to leave an impact with their unique lives.

Tibetans greet each other with “tashi deley,” a beautiful greeting that not only honors the greatness in others, but also the place in which courage, honor, love, and dreams reside. I first saw this on a poster in a school in the Philippines; the teachers told me this is how they teach their students to live and learn with others. Let’s seek this place in students and encourage them to acculturate, honor their abundant skills, and allow them to build on what they know, rather than push them to assimilate into a monolingual, monocultural mindset.

In Greek, meraki is the concept of acting so wholeheartedly that you leave a piece of yourself in whatever you do. With a more inward-looking United States, a growing federal failure to value alliances, eroding multilateralism, and a preference for militarization over diplomacy, the ability to counter divisive narratives will take courage and energy. Let’s ensure the purpose for education matches the needs of our communities and the world; we can start by getting to know our students one new word, concept, and conversation at a time, with wholehearted commitment.

Language as Power

In Czech, zazrak denotes wonder, a miracle, much like language itself is a miracle, a bevy of insights, far more than a means of communication. It is also a means of power, as are the symbols (i.e., words) that express it. You don’t need permission to see your students and their languages in a new light. Let’s acknowledge the powers of multilingualism in global readiness and remember that never-ending wonder can be far more diplomatic than judgment.

Although we can’t always change the way we talk, maybe, just maybe, we can change the way we listen. When our students find safety and opportunity in forging new beginnings, they are in turn, exquisitely equipped to help others do the same.

This article was originally posted in Education Week on August 29, 2018

Wendi Pillars, author of Visual Notetaking for Educators and a National Board Certified English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, North Carolina, shares ways to value our English Language Learners (ELLs) in the classroom.  

Connect with WendiHeather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Image created on Pablo

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