The day after I retired as superintendent of a large suburban New York school district, I drove north to Montreal, instead of south to Miami. Twelve years after I began the experiment of living in an officially French province of Canada, I have learned a lot about learning a second language.
Although I arrived with heaps of social capital, a burning desire to be bilingual, and the resources and wisdom that age and experience afford, I still struggled. I no longer suffer from the total linguistic shutdown that would overtake me the second someone spoke to me in French. I nicknamed these occasions my “ear in the headlights” moments, moments when I would freeze like a deer in the headlights unable to process what was being said, let alone fashion a response—in either French or English.
How people responded to me, however, made a huge difference.
Language Is Personal and Political
Language is an immensely personal and potentially explosive political topic, steeped in historical and cultural contexts often unfathomable to the newcomer. In Quebec, where the majority French population was long considered inferior to the small group of English speakers who had political, social, and economic power, language is a touchy subject. Many French speakers remember the days when they were sneeringly told to “Speak White.” No wonder some have little patience for the handful of English speakers who steadfastly refuse to learn French.
How Expert Language Users Respond Is Key
As a newcomer, I was keenly aware of the judgments my French counterparts were making about me when I was linguistically green. Those who rolled their eyes and turned away from me did little but reinforce my lack of confidence and highlight my lack of ability in French. Those who smiled kindly, gave me some space, and helped me stumble through my inevitable errors, my memorable mispronunciations, and my limited vocabulary helped me learn. And, when a few words of praise for my attempts were thrown in, I was on linguistic cloud nine.
When expert language users respond to learners with the same kind of joy, delight, and forgiveness we automatically employ when dealing with young children entering the world of speech, language learning is supported.
Celebrate Language Diversity
Linguistically diverse students are a growing reality in North American schools. In the U. S., several states have held referendums and campaigns designed to ban
bilingual education or to reduce the amount of ELL instruction linguistically diverse students receive. These actions deliver a powerful message to those struggling to speak a second language.
Contrast this to the situation in Montreal, where the minimal expectation is that everyone speaks French and English—sometimes in the same sentence. Among many immigrant populations from other language groups, even those who arrived generations ago, Saturdays are reserved for children to learn their home language, be it Greek, Italian, Chinese, Arabic or any other language represented in this linguistically diverse city.
Teachers can create classrooms that celebrate language diversity and encourage children from diverse linguistic backgrounds to relish and revel in their home language.
Seek Professional Development and Policy Changes
At the same time the number of linguistically diverse students is increasing, so too is the level of accountability education policies have imposed upon teachers for the progress of their linguistically diverse students. Many mainstream teachers feel ill-prepared to address students who come from backgrounds vastly different than their own. It is small wonder that many find it easy to view their students as the “problem,” rather than taking steps to address the real issues: lack of appropriate professional learning that can assist them to become competent and confident teachers of all learners, and implementation of policies that are ill-informed and hurtful. Teachers can—and should—demand high quality professional development and policies driven by what is best for students.
Change the Conversation
Imagine how different the energy would be in your next faculty meeting if you were asked to identify the strengths of you linguistically diverse students. One group of teachers came up with the following:
Source: Figure 11.2 in McDermott, V. (2017) We must say no to the status quo: Educators as allies in the battle for social justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
They then spent time discussing how they could intentionally activate these strengths. Identifying and activating student strengths is one of the high operational practices of the Pedagogy of Confidence (Jackson, 2011). Abandoning a deficit model in favor of one that starts from strengths is a low-cost, highly effective strategy for changing the conversation about students thought to be a problem (Jackson & McDermott, 2015).
Become an Ally in the Battle for Social Justice
Educators can become allies for their linguistically diverse students when they understand the depth of the personal and political aspects of language learning, and the power of positive responses to learners’ attempts to communicate. In addition, they work toward changing the status quo when they intentionally celebrate language diversity, demand high quality professional development and wise educational policies, and when they intentionally change the conversation about students marginalized due to language.
Jackson, Y., & McDermott, V. (2012). Aim high, achieve more: How to transform urban schools through fearless leadership. Alexandria, VA:ASCD.
Jackson, Y., & McDermott, V. (2015). Unlocking student potential: How do I identify and activate student strengths? Alexandria, VA:ASCD.
McDermott, V. (2017) We must say no to the status quo: Educators as allies in the battle for social justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press