It’s Time to Move Beyond Labels that Focus on English Proficiency Says Harvard Professor

It’s Time to Move Beyond Labels that Focus on English Proficiency Says Harvard Professor

As many of us know, being bilingual or multilingual has numerous advantages. Enhanced cognitive functions and delayed onset of dementia are just a few of the neurological benefits. Educationally, students who speak more than one language have a greater ability to differentiate between phonemic sounds. They also have enriched worldviews that allow them to take into account broader perspectives. These super-abilities make a good case for elevating the status of bilingual and multilingual learners (BMLs), who so often are viewed from a deficit-perspective because of their developing English language proficiency. In almost all English-medium schools and classrooms around the world, bilingual and multilingual learners are often referred to as ‘English Language Learners’ or ‘Limited English Proficient’ and other similar labels. These very clearly fail to recognise the enriched experience that our BMLs are able to tap into through their bi/multilingualism and even worse, these labels continue to perpetuate the misconception that there is something wrong with BMLs. It’s not surprising that BMLs are over-represented in special education settings – often as a result of misdiagnosed learning and language disorders.

As more educators are finding a growing population of BMLs in their schools and classrooms, there is an urgent need to empower them with understanding and expertise about their students. We believe the very first place to start is with the labels we use to define these learners. Francesca McGeary, our Director, draws connections between her own experiences as a native-English speaker struggling in her French school in Belgium. The stigma that came with ‘not being able to speak the language’ became part of her identity. Yet, as an adult, her multilingualism is now valued and usually admired by others. We need to help teachers, especially those who are monolingual (ie. and not aware of the multilingual experience), understand that students are much more than their English proficiencies and their labels. In fact, many students who struggle with English are highly-competent in their own languages and literacies. This is a reality not often considered by many educators. We need to spread awareness that our BMLs are multidimensional and their bi/multilingualism is a way of being, right now and not just something to work toward for adulthood. We can start by educating teachers about the value of referring to students as ‘bilingual,’ ‘multilingual’ or BMLs. By doing so, we honour their cultural assets instead of viewing them through a lens of ‘lack.’

Professor Gig Luk from the Harvard Graduate School of Education explains that she wants schools to extend their understanding of BMLs:

“If we only look at ELL or English proficient, that’s not a representation of the whole spectrum of bilingualism,” she says. “To embrace bilingualism, rather than simply recognising this phenomenon, we need to consider both the challenges and strengths of children with diverse language backgrounds. We cannot do this by only looking at English proficiency. Other information, such as home language background, will enrich our understanding of bilingual development and learning.”  (Source)

We encourage schools and teachers to engage in meaningful discussions about this topic. Would changing your labels for your bilingual/multilingual learners impact how teachers view students? Would it change the way students view themselves? Let us know what you think.