A student learning English holds a trophy to they sky for their accomplishments in ESL. Beside the trophy reads the title, There's Nothing Special about English.

There's Nothing Special about English

english english learners esl instruction esl teachers esol inclusive practices multilingual learners May 01, 2023

As a global lingua franca, English has long been perceived by many as a superior language. But let’s be real: there is nothing that makes English inherently any more special than any other language. I know the argument. “But it’s a global language!” “It’s the language of business, of science!” I’m here to say this today: viewing one language as superior to others is often based on subjective beliefs and cultural biases, rather than objective measures of linguistic quality or value. This thinking is harmful to our students and is holding us back from progressing as an educational system.

English as a Second Language (ESL) services are an important element of many multilingual learner programs. Many ESL teachers come to their craft via a love of language, culture or global travel. Why then, when I ask good-hearted, language-centered K-12 educators the question, “Why English?” do I often hear answers that place the language on a pedestal? And how can we re-center our mission to showcase the value of all languages and to emphasize multilingualism?

My History Books Left This Part Out

As it turns out, we have quite the history of language oppression in the US, dating back to the country's early colonial period. From the outset, English was established as the dominant language of the nation's founding population, and many colonial policies were designed to suppress or eliminate other languages and cultures. This process continued as the United States grew and expanded, with policies like English-only education and language requirements for citizenship being implemented to further marginalize non-English-speaking populations. Here are some other examples:

  • The suppression of Native American languages is an example of early language oppression in the United States. Native children were taken from their families and forced to attend boarding schools where they were prohibited from speaking their native language and were instead taught English. This policy continued through the 20th century, leading to the loss of many Native American languages and cultures.
  • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many immigrants came to the United States, bringing with them their own languages and cultures. However, the dominant Anglo-American culture viewed these languages and cultures as inferior and saw English as the only legitimate language for American citizens. As a result, many immigrants and their children were pressured to assimilate to American culture by learning English and abandoning their native languages and cultures.
  • During World War I, anti-German sentiment led to the suppression of the German language in the United States. German language newspapers were shut down, German-language books were burned, and speaking German in public was discouraged. Similar measures were taken against Japanese and Italian during World War II.

It's crucial that we shift our mindset around the question, ‘Why English?’ in order to truly serve our multilingual scholars. If not, we risk perpetuating these long-held biases. 

What’s the message?

From our history, it’s pretty clear how one might have received the message that English is superior. But let’s play out this thinking: If (conventional) English is somehow a better language, then, is Western culture, too, somehow better? Are our students’ home languages somehow less than? What about their experiences? Their culture? Welcome, friends, to the slippery slope of exclusion and marginalization of linguistically diverse students. It's essential that we recognize the impact of such sneaky forms of cultural and linguistic bias in education and work to dismantle them. If not, we are sending hurtful messages to our students and their families that we may not intend. We can start by rewriting the narrative about why we teach English in ESL. Here are a couple of suggestions. I’d love to hear yours too:

  1. We teach for ACCESS (no, not the test, WIDA staters). English is the vehicle that delivers content in so many English-only settings. Not a better key, just the one that matches this particular lock.
  2. For MULTILINGUALISM. Students earn the prestige of multilingualism by learning a new language while preserving all others, and above all, by reinforcing the value of them all.

Asking, “why English?” is important for educators as well as the students themselves. In a recent conversation with Diandra Morse, LCSW, bilingual parenting and education advocate (check out her work here at Bilingual Playdate!), she pointed out the risk of silence in this regard. About ESL, she shared the common reality that  “kids don’t know why they are there. They internalize it as ‘something’s wrong with me…something’s wrong because I speak Spanish and not English.’ ” 

Diandra went on to flip this, suggesting the positive outcomes that could be if we allow students the opportunity to “define their 'why' for English.

“If we have students buying in and understanding of how the ultimate goal is to add a language and not take away - then maybe we can also prevent loss on a deeper level.”

essential aspect of culture and identity 

When we focus solely on teaching English, we risk neglecting the rich cultural heritage and linguistic diversity of our students. For many students, their heritage language is a critical part of their identity, and being able to communicate with family members and community members in that language is essential. As educators, we should strive to maintain and celebrate that linguistic diversity, and we should actively support upholding home languages.

Building multilingual students also has many benefits. Studies have shown that being bilingual or multilingual can improve cognitive function, increase cultural empathy, and even delay the onset of dementia. Multilingual students are assets to school systems, carrying deep and diverse funds of knowledge and perspectives. By nurturing multilingualism, we create more inclusive and welcoming environments in our schools and we see far better academic, social and health outcomes.

English Schminglish?

My concern here is not that English is not worthy of being taught; my concern is that our very good intentions could land us squarely in the category of linguistic oppressor. When we place too much emphasis on English proficiency, on one idealized version of English (including pronunciation) we risk marginalizing so. many. promising. students. We risk sending the message that other languages carry less value, and we miss the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the linguistic diversity of our students, rather than treating non-native English speakers as deficient or in need of remediation.

Diego vs. Teacher

During a visit to a high school with a high newcomer and refugee population last week, I spoke with a Guatemalan newcomer, Diego, who beamed when I detailed (in Spanish) my recent trip to his home country. As his teacher used her fledgling Spanish to help him, I playfully asked, “Which is better: your English or her Spanish?” He happily informed me that he had her by a hair on that one. We all got a sweet laugh. But I think of the irony: newcomers are in focus because they have “so little” English, which is viewed as a barrier, a challenge, an uphill battle. Yet his teacher, with less Spanish than he had English, is most certainly an asset to the school. Let’s view Diego as such an asset too. 

All languages have value, and each one offers unique perspectives and strengths. As educators we should focus on supporting our students to become proudly multilingual by maintaining heritage languages, leveraging multilingual students as assets to school systems, and dismantling the superiority bias we carry about English. By doing so, we can create more inclusive and welcoming environments in our schools while celebrating the diversity of our students' cultural and linguistic backgrounds. 

But it starts with an honest examination of the question: Why English?

Say it with me, “There’s nothing special about English.” 😏

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