Thursday, September 04, 2008


In Which I Realize That We're Doing It Wrong

I’ve been slapping myself on the forehead all week, so I figured it would be safer to stop slapping and start writing.

In the last few weeks, two of the biggest, most respected and sought after employers in our service area told me, independently and without prompting, that they desperately want bilingual employees. In the fields the employers represent, the ability to communicate with the population that actually exists is hugely important, and they’ve had a terrible time finding bilingual workers with the skills they want.

We teach a substantial (and growing) bilingual population, of course, but I realized just now that we’re doing it wrong.

Our entire ESL/Bilingual framework is built on the assumption that ESL status is an obstacle or a handicap. The unstated goal has been to ‘catch up’ the ESL population to the rest of the students. Accordingly, we have all manner of ‘bridge’ programs, tutoring, ‘outreach,’ and the rest.

These are all good, as far as they go. To the extent that they help students from struggling high schools to develop the skills to succeed in college and eventual careers, I’m all for them. And you’ll never catch me saying bad things about tutoring, whether for this group or anybody else.

But the attitudes we convey, and messages we send, by treating ESL status as a handicap are backwards. In this market, fluency in two languages (English and Spanish, really) is a huge plus. It’s an asset. Given two similarly qualified candidates, one bilingual and the other not, both employers made it abundantly clear to me that they’d hire the bilingual one in a heartbeat. The ability to communicate with Spanish-speaking clients (or, more importantly, potential clients) is a major business advantage, and one for which they’re willing to pay. It’s worth something to them.

But the messages we send to the local high schools with large Hispanic populations don’t mention that. They’re all about ‘access’ and ‘support’ and ‘respect,’ rather than ‘parlaying your advantage.’ They put the focus on possibility, rather than motivation. And anyone who has taught can tell you that motivation matters tremendously.

I’ll concede that utilitarian arguments for education don’t ‘sing’ the way that phrases like ‘the love of learning’ do, and that too exclusive a focus on perceived career payoff can be limiting. But utilitarian arguments can get folks in the door, and once they’re in, all kinds of things become possible. (And, in practice, the choices available aren’t usually “major in business or major in literature.” They’re closer to “go to college or go to work right away.”) And saying to a potential student that “you’re already ahead of the game” seems likelier to result in positive attitudes than “we’ll help you slog through all that remediation.”

Even better, since the asset in question is a skill rather than a trait, anybody who wants to can pick it up. We teach Spanish, and anybody who wants to enroll is welcome. In other words, while an emphasis on Spanish-as-asset would particularly benefit the Hispanic population, it ultimately isn’t racial. It’s about recognizing the market value of a teachable skill. Some people just happen to have been taught it at home.

(Of course, ‘level’ is key. It’s one thing to be able to translate “blue car,” and quite another to be able to translate “anterior cruciate ligament” or “collateralized debt obligation.” Fluency in everyday language doesn’t necessarily mean fluency in a specialized vocabulary. All the more reason for higher ed to lead the charge, I say.)

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen community outreach programs that emphasize the pragmatic advantage of bilingualism? Am I just reinventing an old wheel here?

You know, there's a whole country to the north of you with two official languages. Perhaps Canada might have some experience with official bilingualism?

The way it seems to play out at the post-secondary level is that a small number of programs are bilingual, like Political Science at McGill and all programs at the University of Ottawa. In that case, you're expected to be able to at least read both languages. You can hand in assignments and exams in either English or French.

I'm not aware of a lot of explicit efforts to make people bilingual at the postsecondary level; some people choose to go to a postsecondary instutition in their second language to improve their skills in that language.
I don't know about outreach efforts, but my institution has a two-semester sequence in "Spanish for Health Care Professionals." If you want to know more about it, let me know.
Dittos to Doc.

Bilingualism includes *both*

- Teaching spanish speakers english (which we are already doing)


- Teaching english speakers spanish (pretty much ignored; we even cancelled several Spanish classes on our campus in order to expand ESL classes . . . go figure)

Here at Compass Heading U we require all Damnyankeecarpetbaggers take a course in Texan As A Second Language . . .
I'm in Southern California at a CC whose population is at least 65% Chicano/Latino. On the vocational side of things, we offer bilingual courses for training office workers, paramedics, paralegals, medical assistants, and more. We don't do much with our academic/transfer program besides offering courses in Spanish for native speakers of Spanish.

Q: Spanish classes for kids who grew up speaking Spanish? That's unnecessary/a waste of time/a dilution of standards/blah blah blah.

A: Then why do we require English classes for kids who grew up speaking English?

In art history programs there is a required language of either French, German or Italian so one can do proper research. The school I attended had most research being written in these languages along with English. It would make sense then if one was focusing on a particular culture of art or history one would learn the language.

But what you post about is the industry influencing the study. It amazes me that education programs for teachers do not require a second language. I mean beyond passing an exam and really being fluent. This can be a touchy subject and although Spanish is prominant in most of the country there are other languages such as Chinese/Mandarin that are highly needed. This is certainly the case in large city areas. When I observed a NYC high school I saw a huge mix of languages in one classroom (French, Korean, Spanish and Russian) that it made sense to use English as the language for communication.
Yes, our country does it wrong. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever. But try and mention that we should teach bilingual programs, especially in Spanish and start ducking the tomatoes.
Being English/French bilingual is an asset up here. Outreach programs don't need to push it, as everyone knows that already.

Speaking Mandarin also helps, but again no one really needs to push it as people looking at the export market already know that.
I have been teaching graduate and postgraduate computer science in French (in France), in English (in English-speaking Canada), I am now teaching in Spanish (in Chile), and I know some basic Russian. I would like to learn Portuguese and Mandarin (I did start a bit), but it will benefit only my general culture and pride.

Being able to speak and teach in various languages did not prove to be a professional asset in academia, beside indicating my ability and willingness to learn the local idioma when applying to universities in countries hiring foreigners because they develop their research program.

Basically I saw a few colleges with bilingual teaching positions (where you teach 6 courses a year and don't have time to do research) and many universities with research positions (where you teach 3 courses a year in English and spend whatever time is left to you on research and administration): the two words seem disjoint to me...
No need to think that this is a purely "pragmatic" emphasis. The fact is that you'll be affirming the linguistic gifts of your ESL students by taking the "asset" approach. You'll be validating what they already have, and encouraging them to add to it. Actually a much more humanistic approach than the current "you're inadequate" one!
Belated comment to commend you for this post (from a French-speaking linguistic anthropologist from Montreal).
To be perfectly honest, the value of bilingualism is in fact well-understood in many contexts, especially here in Quebec as well as in a few other parts of Canada. But the more people who "grok" these advantages, the better. In fact, one well-known politician has been talking up the virtues of bilingualism and, if he gets elected, exposure to positive views of bilingualism may greatly increase.
If you need supporting evidence to bring to curriculum committees or some such, it shouldn't be too hard to find. Language Log certainly has some useful links and fellow sociolinguists have accumulated a lot of data on bilingualism.
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