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?