Those poor, poor children.

monolingualImagine a world where poor monolingual children are deficit because they don’t receive the rich linguistic exposure of their peers.

Even upon entering school, monolinguals would be so far behind their bilingual and bidialectal peers, it would take incredible measures to close the achievement gap. Monolinguals might pick up conversational aspects of their peers’ language or dialect, but it is scientifically corroborated that the true fluency required to develop advanced language requires great effort, especially in the home. Monolingual parents can’t help their own language deficit, and they can’t be blamed for their shortcomings. So educators would need to help them via community programs, dedicated home-school liaisons, and parent nights as they learn to navigate the bilingual world into which their child has been thrust. With proper training, they can be encouraged to incorporate the new language or dialect into their home and model it to their children. But the monolingual status of such families must not be viewed as subtractive! Living in such cultural enclaves must really have a positive impact on the identities of the students, and educators should incorporate literature and curriculum that monolinguals can identify with, so they can feel that they have a voice in their classrooms. With targeted professional development, all teachers would soon learn strategies for helping their monolingual students learn content, despite any linguistic shortcomings that get in the way of displaying background knowledge.

Some of it sounds absurd, doesn’t it? I’m riffing on the theme from a recent post by the Educational Linguist. He goes on, adapting descriptions from research and known interventions for minority parents. The point is to illustrate that this kind of dialogue about culturally and linguistically diverse learners is fairly common, even among proponents of bilingual education.

There are valid points to be made, but some clear flaws remain. For example, while parents can certainly adopt tactics to help students transfer learning between school and home, imposing expectations that diverse parents model or conform to mainstream parenting practice is unrealistic, unfair, and contrived. Additionally, validating culture can seem so daunting that it becomes trite and results in a few halfhearted new acquisitions for the classroom library.

It’s a tough balance: Educators must serve the interest of students, especially those outside of the mainstream, without being condescending or thinking themselves too saintly. It’s something Paolo Freire talked about in Pedagogy of the Oppressed – when the powerful join the cause of the powerless, they run the risk of believing themselves generous, when such generosity is based in oppression. I’ve been given pause this week about how I come across as I champion EL education, and I hope you’ll inspect your own tone in the dialogue, as well.

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