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Bilingual advocate tells ISU educators arbitrary standards stigmatize EAL students

Non-native English speakers are often stigmatized on the basis of language, according to a bilingual advocate who spoke to educators at Illinois State University on Thursday to mark Bilingual Advocacy Week.

Man speaking behind podium with right hand raised and a university seal on the podium
Adeline Schultz
Jonathan Rosa of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education spoke this week at Illinois State University in Normal.

Jonathan Rosa of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education said that in the post-civil rights era, issues to do with language have been detached from identity in American culture.

Rosa argued that this detachment of identity from issues surrounding language is in error. Distinctions between the language students use at home and the language they are expected to use in an academic setting are actually deeply connected to race and gender.

Rosa presented the way we talk about bilingual students in an educational setting contributes to stigmatization that holds groups of people back from greater opportunity. English as an Additional Language, or EAL, students are seen as educationally deficient, and further sorted into categories.

"In certain situations, wealthy children and white children are celebrated when they learn languages other than English, however lower income kids of color are often framed as problems," Rosa said in an interview on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Some EAL students are considered “on track” toward fluency, but others are categorized as Long-Term English Learners, or LTEL students. Rosa said that these latter students are given lesser educational opportunities than their peers, and will have less long-term economic opportunities because of this.

Rosa further argued that the categorization of many EAL students as LTELs is based on deficient and potentially discriminatory standards. For example, students who pronounce “the” as [THA] instead of [THEE] before non-nouns may be penalized and categorized as LTELs for deficiencies in academic English when their actual conversational English is at or approaching fluency.

Rosa said that many native speakers would be unable to pass the current standards for functional academic English. Additionally, 6,800 students in Los Angeles were categorized as “non-nons” based on similar testing, or EAL students who are labeled as non-verbal in both English and their native languages.

Many EAL students don’t test as fluent in their native language because their knowledge of multiple languages prevents them from knowing specific words or phrases that may appear on a proficiency test, Rosa said. This is due to their mixing words and phrases from multiple languages. For instance, a student who speaks both Spanish and English may say that the word for “carpet” in Spanish is “carpeta,” when it is actually “alfombra.”

In reality, Rosa argued that the vast majority of these students are highly functional in both their native language and in English, but they fail to meet arbitrary academic standards for what counts as fluency in either. This leads to long-term socioeconomic marginalization for a large population of people.

"There's a tremendous benefit to the promotion of bilingual education, insofar as we connect that to broader political struggles," Rosa said, citing affordable housing, healthcare and electoral representation as examples. "We're talking about community wellbeing."

More broadly, Rosa argued that we view multilingualism differently in those whose native language is English than in those who have other native languages. Princess Charlotte, for example, is portrayed in British media as precocious and highly unusual for being bilingual at a very young age.

In contrast, children who speak English as a second language are more likely to be thought of as deficient. Rosa concluded that this is because speaking English is seen as the default. To support this, he showed the audience a clip of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich referring to Spanish as “the language of the ghetto” during his presidential campaign in 2007, and vowing to make EAL students speak what he sees as proper English in schools.

Rosa also provided the examples of Beto O’Rourke, a white politician whose Spanish language abilities are seen as praiseworthy, and Julian Castro, a Hispanic politician who has been derided for not knowing enough Spanish. This kind of double standard in our popular imagination only serves to further stigmatize vulnerable populations, he said.

Rosa presented greater humility as a potential solution to these issues. By seeing the ways in which bilingual individuals are mixing their knowledge of multiple languages in varying contexts as “full of multilingual skillfulness” instead of full of academic errors, Rosa said we can move toward changing harmful standards for EAL students and ensure they have access to core subjects in school that will enable them to have greater opportunities later in life.

Adeline Schultz is a correspondent at WGLT. She joined the station in 2024.