Skip to main content

Bilingualism is a 21st Century Skill. So why are 21st Century Standards Ignoring It?

Nelson Flores
Monday, July 18, 2016
English Language Learners

On my recent trip to Paris I ate dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. As I struggled to order from the menu in my very little French, the waiter—having overheard me speaking to my partner in Spanish—quickly switched to Spanish. He proudly told us that he spoke French, Spanish, and English in addition to his home language of Vietnamese. It was an important reminder to me of the ways that multilingualism historically has been, and continues to be, the norm in much of the world. 

The vast monolingualism of U.S. society prevents our population from becoming true global citizens.

This multilingualism stands in sharp contrast to the monolingualism of U.S. society. According to the U.S. census, 80 percent of the U.S. population speaks only English at home. In addition, immigrant families who speak languages other than English often struggle to transmit their home language to their children with many second-generation and most third-generation children having a strong or exclusive preference for English. This monolingualism does not bode well for the future of our nation.

The most obvious limitation of monolingualism is demonstrated by my interaction with the Vietnamese waiter. He, and many other multilingual employees of businesses, are able to use their multilingual proficiencies to provide better service to their customers. Yet, the benefits of multilingualism run so much deeper than this. Learning other languages introduces people to different cultures and worldviews and offers them the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of others. In this way it is not simply or even primarily a necessary skill for the global economy but rather a necessary skill for global citizenship. The vast monolingualism of U.S. society prevents our population from becoming true global citizens.

Yet, U.S. monolingualism has not happened by accident. Instead, it is the direct result of educational policies that have failed to prioritize high-quality bilingual education. World language education for most monolingual English speakers doesn’t begin until high school. In addition, most immigrant children are placed in English-only classrooms that do not support the continued development of their home language. The result is that monolingual English speakers rarely develop bilingual competencies and immigrant children often transition from their home language to English by adulthood.

With recent shifts in standards-based reform initiatives toward the teaching of 21st century standards, one would expect more of a prioritization of bilingual education. After all, what skill could be more important in the 21st century than competency in multiple languages? Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The Common Core State Standards have nothing to say about instruction in languages other than English. Similarly, while all states have adopted English Language Proficiency standards as a guide for supporting ELLs in the development of English, most states have made little effort to develop standards for developing the home languages of ELLs and other students from bilingual homes. The only way to change this trend is for schools to make a concerted effort starting in elementary school to teach monolingual English speakers other world languages while supporting immigrant communities in maintaining these languages. For this to happen, bilingual education must be made central to standards-based reform initiatives.

A few states are taking the lead in developing such a bilingual approach to standards implementation. One notable example is Texas, one of C-SAIL’s partner states. Texas has a strong bilingual infrastructure in the form of policies requiring bilingual education when districts have 20 or more ELLs who speak the same language at the same grade level. They also offer a large number of dual language programs that include students who are not ELLs. These bilingual policies are supported further in the Texas standards related to Spanish Language Arts, which provide bilingual teachers with guidance on how to teach Spanish language and literacy from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

It is essential for more states to adopt models supporting bilingual education if we as a nation are truly invested in providing our children with the 21st century skills they need to become global citizens.

While Texas has developed its own standards that prioritize bilingualism, New York State has led efforts in making the Common Core State Standards more responsive to bilingualism. In addition to having similar policies to Texas that favor bilingual education, the state has created the New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative. This initiative has created New Language Progressions that differentiate each CCSS standard into five levels of language development. This provides tools for both ESL and world language teachers to develop curriculum aligned with the CCSS that support their students in their emerging bilingualism. They also created Home Language Arts Progressions, which provide a roadmap for bilingual teachers working to develop the home languages of students from bilingual households. Being a more linguistically diverse state than Texas, New York provides examples to guide bilingual teachers of Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, and Haitian Creole.

Both Texas and New York provide models for how standards-based reform initiatives can prioritize bilingualism. They have both created policies that are supportive of bilingual education programs and have developed their own, or re-shaped existing, standards to provide guidance for bilingual and world language teachers on how to most effectively support students in their emerging bilingualism. Other states would no doubt need to modify these initiatives to fit the needs of their particular student populations. That said, it is essential for more states to adopt similar models if we as a nation are truly invested in providing our children with the 21st century skills they need to become global citizens.