How biliterate are bilinguals?

biliteracySome exciting efforts are underway to qualify the knowledge of two languages. The Seal of Biliteracy will appear on the high school diplomas of students in ten states and DC (more to come) that demonstrate a “functional level”of proficiency in more than one language. It is intended to position bilingualism as an asset worth striving for among universities and employers.

English Language Learner educators are enthused about the Seal because of its potential power to shift perceptions of ELLs toward the positive. It is even being enacted in states with English Only legislation, where subtractive views of ELLs are common, whereby the first language is seen as inhibiting or preventing English acquisition. Proponents of bilingual education have long held that the first language should be viewed as additive because it gives ELLs an incredible resource beyond English but the general attitude has been skeptical, and the Seal has the power to change public sentiment.

Native English speakers can also earn the Seal of Biliteracy when they demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language. Considering that foreign language courses are traditionally reserved for high schoolers, this may bring language education into the elementary classroom in a way that other countries have practiced for years. The Seal is also increasing interest in dual language programs, which are already gaining momentum across the US, either because states are building such programs into the Seal’s legislation, or simply because the Seal promotes Pathway awards for students as young as Pre-K as they progress in their second language acquisition.

Isabella Sanchez outlines a few concerns with the rigor of the Seal here. At present, ELLs are required to earn a 2.5 GPA (2.0 in some California districts) in English Language Arts courses, while foreign language learners (FLLs) should have ‘intermediate’ proficiency in their language courses. In both cases, educators are concerned that these expectations are too low.

Another question is how to address the potential imbalance between expectations for ELLs and FLLs. While similar GPA requirements seem “fair,” a graduating ELL who has been designated as such from elementary age is likely to have much higher proficiency in English than an FLL will have in a language which s/he has only studied for a few hours a week in the recent past. Despite this discrepancy in actual language skill, ELLs are not usually viewed with the same admiration or treated as the same global asset as FLLs. Still, bilingualism has absolute value, regardless of student background, so all should be eligible to earn the Seal. It just raises the question of how to acknowledge language proficiency justly.

Another concern derives from semantics: Biliteracy implies the capability to read and write at an advanced level in two languages. Unless ELLs who speak Arabic, Korean, or Russian receive instruction in the orthography of their home language, they are at a distinct disadvantage compared to ELLs whose home language use the Latin alphabet, as English does. Meanwhile, foreign language courses tend to devote time to the written aspects of language, but without extensive study and practice, FLLs are not liable to feel as comfortable reading or writing in their second language as they do in English.

Should the Seal of Biliteracy be renamed? No. The creators of the Seal are experts in language education, and I’m sure the use of ‘biliteracy’ rather than ‘bilingualism’ was deliberate. Bilingualism will forever remain a widely interpretable concept because language is fluid. But biliteracy has ties to its cousin, literacy, which fairly precisely indicates the ability to read and write. Because reading and writing map onto our conception of academic achievement, the Seal of Biliteracy promotes academic rigor as its goal. Even if it takes some time to enact biliteracy in a tangible way among students, maintaining it as the endpoint ultimately works in favor of language educators, students, and bilingual education.

I believe the Seal of Biliteracy will do amazing things for ELLs, bilingualism, dual language programs, and global perceptions of the US. As Maya, our president says, “The Seal is a culmination of the second language educator’s life work!” It will be amazing to witness a shift in the perception of our field toward something desirable and worthy of respect.

Still, I’m curious about how some of these concerns will be addressed. What about you? What are reasonable, yet rigorous expectations to earn the Seal of Biliteracy? What should the difference be, if any, between expectations for ELLs and FLLs? How can we work biliteracy into instructional time, and what kind of professional preparation will teachers need? How will standards for biliteracy interact with the Common Core State Standards?

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