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Managing Language in a Multicultural America

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Managing Language in a Multicultural America: Diversity, Schooling, and Society


Fostering linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism in schooling is distinct from the prior policies, practices, and sociohistorical patterns of schooling in the U.S. that have attempted to create a monocultural or monolingual society. More specifically, theories and pedagogical approaches on managing languages in educational settings have viewed linguistic diversity as deficiencies to be overcome. The dominant language, literacy, and cultural practices demanded by the school fell in line with white, middle-class norms, which by default are considered superior practices. This naturally removes the constructed knowledge base many language minority students brought from home and communities precluding these learners from building on their previous linguistic and cognitive constructions because of language barriers from previous. The purpose of this paper was to probe second language teaching and learning through the policies and practices of subtractive bilingualism and two-way dual language immersion. Throughout this work, I incorporated my position, reflection, and briefly, experiential knowledge on these practices and policies making brief recommendations at the end. As an advocate for culturally and linguistically sustaining pedagogy, subtractive practices in schooling and society are problematic and deserves more attention. With globalization at our door, there’s no better time than now to build discourse and honor, expand, and nurture our multilingual resources within the U.S., especially with our young learners.

Managing Language in a Multicultural America:

Diversity, Schooling, and Society

As the population in the United States is growing increasingly diverse, many schools and classrooms have become a minority-majority space – a notable milestone for a country that historically has shown great resistance to diversity and integration while boasting one of the most ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse societies in the world. Scholars argue that the face of America is changing. However, education policy, culture, and laws haven’t always presented the best climate for this change. Of the many components that characterize an individual such as physical appearance and culture, language is sometimes the most obvious because we convey our ideas using language. Language is arguably one of the most essential elements and assessment tools for our development. Although American English, in all its diversity, is unquestionably our dominant national language, this country has always had a complex multilingual history. In this paper, we will probe second language teaching and learning through the policies and practices of subtractive bilingualism and dual language immersion. As an advocate for culturally sustaining pedagogy, subtractive cultural and linguistic practices are a major problem that has not received the attention it deserves. With globalization at our door, there’s no better time than now to honor, expand, and nurture our multilingual resources within the U.S., especially with our young learners.

The many facets, and unfortunately, problems in second language teaching and learning has long been acknowledged by researchers such as Fillmore (1991), but not until recently have equitable resolutions been provided for these issues, nor has it been equitably addressed in education and reform.


A Historical Perspective on Practice and Policy

The schooling of culturally and linguistically diverse students has historically been positioned in societal issues about immigration and the division of power (Cummins, 2000).  From the moment that English Language Learners (ELLs) enter U.S. classrooms and schools, the educational programming and conditioning they receive has a significant influence on their language skills and academic performance; programs either promote language loss [subtractive] or language maintenance and development [additive] over time. Moreover, educational practice, policy, and even theory, are often presented and examined in debates surrounding the legitimacy of the language and culture of diverse groups (Olsen, 1997).

Over twenty years later from Olsen’s work, we still see these debates intensified with new political rhetoric in anti-immigration campaigns from conservatives in this country, including the President of the U.S.: “when Mexico sends its people [to the U.S.], they’re not sending their best… they’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” (Trump, 2016).  This implicitly, and many might argue explicitly, suggests the idea of “making America great again” is a national move towards an white-middle class English speaking monolingual and monocultural society, again. I wonder what role this type of rhetoric plays in unconscious bias and subtractive language practices in education by our significantly less diverse teaching force and school administrators, which do not reflect the diversity of their student population.

This national rhetoric can have major impact: nearly 80% of ELLs in U.S. schools are Hispanic native Spanish-speakers who are far too often already blamed for their academic failure and low achievement through well-established deficit approaches, which see their difference as problematic, needing to be fixed (Eldelsky, 1983).

        Although the rationale and rhetoric for the current climate on diversity evolved, America’s history of “oppressive education” is well documented and unfortunately, normal (Kumashiro, 2001). In 1998, we saw this type of debate/discourse embedded in the changes in the California Education Code brought about by the voter initiative Proposition 227 and its turnarounds of the state’s initial support of primary language instruction. Terms like “Official English” and “English for Children Initiative” emerged with this legislature.

The assumption that has long grounded this initiative was that teaching children in their native language served only to hold them back in their acquisition of English and therefor in their future educational success: a deficit approach. This set a deafening tone and precedent regarding literary, culture, and language for the nation. Under the new education code, public schools in would observe children for 30 days and decide if children can manage in a mainstream English classroom. If not, they were eligible to receive one year of “Structured English Immersion,” which required that instruction be “nearly all” in English. After one year, students were expected to join mainstream English classrooms where instruction was required to be overwhelmingly in English. Interestingly, this law allocated approximately $50,000,000 per year to train adult English learners, parents or members of the community, to serve as tutors for children learning English paving the way towards subtractive bilingualism, which we will discuss later.



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