What’s new in bilingualism? Good things! For one, it seems that maybe we are finally ready to stop taking a deficit perspective on bilingual students. “What!?!” you are thinking. “We have been talking about ‘difference vs. disorder’ for years!” True, but ‘difference vs. disorder’ is just a tiny ripple in a sea of great depth and complexity. Sadly, a deficit-based lens on bilingual students remains so pervasive, we can hardly see it (remember, culture is water to a fish). More on this later, but let’s quickly define deficit perspective as the ideology that frames bilingual students or their language(s) in terms of where they struggle or what they lack (e.g., “the achievement gap”). Let’s also make the case right now that our framework, or ideology, impacts how we define and approach a problem (Gorski, 2016). To illustrate, imagine how a speech-language pathologist (SLP) views bilingual learners from a deficit perspective—even without realizing it—will select assessment tools, interpret outcomes, communicate with parents and teachers, and develop goals and interventions for bilingual students.
Happily, there is another view. In fact, in the nearly 20 years of my involvement in bilingual research, there existed a social justice–oriented, strengths-focused ideology of bilingualism. This orientation and similar critical social frameworks of language and learning remained on the periphery of the discipline, until recently. The “long overdue awakening to systemic racism” (Worland, 2020) in the United States validated and amplified previously marginalized voices championing social justice and cultural humility in the profession of speech-language pathology. Language often is not the focus of broader conversations about racism, but SLPs regularly observe and experience the powerful connections among language, culture, and identity. Can we as a profession take the next step and link race and ethnicity to this triad? Doing so would allow us to acknowledge the Racio linguistic ideologies (Flores, 2019) that uphold deficit perspectives—including, for example, our notion of “academic language” . . . but more on this later.
So, where are we now in our disciplinary discourse on bilingualism? This article addresses three rising tides: (1) a widening view of how we understand and describe people who use more than one language; (2) the long-awaited departure from a deficit framing of bilingual students; and (3) related to #2, a critical perspective on the notion of academic language as a racialized, exclusionary construct. Before moving on, note that the term bilingual here refers to anyone who speaks, understands, reads, or writes more than one language or dialect, in any context and for any purpose.
Broadening Concepts of Bilingualism
First, let’s talk about what it means to be bilingual. We are increasingly understanding how bilingualism facilitates mobility, engagement, and participation in our high-tech globalized communities. I wonder: If we can accept a broader, more dynamic perspective of bilingualism as it refers to global and social phenomena, can’t we also move beyond defining and assessing bilingual students by narrow labels and criteria like age of acquisition and level of proficiency (as defined by what and whom)?
Consider Kohnert’s (2013) argument, nearly a decade old, that language is dynamic and therefore, the criteria are simply some of the many characteristics of bilinguals—not defining factors. Thus, instead of measuring and defining bilinguals in terms of proficiency, we need to understand bilingualism based on functional or needs-based criteria: “Individuals who have past, present, or future need for two [or more] different languages [or dialects] are . . . considered bilingual” (Kohnert, 2013, p. 18). How might a dynamic, needs-based perspective of language change the way that we evaluate bilingual students’ language and literacy skills, identify their strengths and challenges, and establish meaningful goals and interventions?
Extending the conception of bilingualism as dynamic, García et al. (2021) emphasize how bilinguals’ languages work as a unified system, promoting translingualism: bilinguals’ dynamic and strategic engagement of their rich linguistic repertoire across linguistic and social contexts. For the many scholars who observe and promote translingualism in educational settings (e.g., Canagarajah, García, Horner, Matsuda, Zapata), the critical point is that languages work in interaction with one another—not in isolation. Therefore, we cannot use monolingual outcomes as norms against which to measure bilingual outcomes. Additionally, translingualism is a process, not a product. This reminds me of dynamic assessment, the long-recognized gold standard for bilingual language assessment in our profession (Orellana et al., 2019). Consider how much more we can learn about bilingual students’ abilities and potential when we focus on the process (how they approach and carry out a task), rather than a quantifiable product (what is said or done).
Rejecting the Deficit Perspective
How many times have you read a bilingual research article that started with, “There are many bilingual students in the United States. Their achievement on [name a skill or measure] is poorer than that of their monolingual peers”? Too many! I admit, I published work that starts just like this, and I regret it. This introduction to any inquiry about bilingual learners is a familiar trope—an overused, formulaic rationale for why we want to investigate whatever aspect of bilingual language we want to explore. The truth is, numerous factors play into school “achievement”, including how we (1) define it (e.g., what is academic language? More on this later); (2) measure it (standardized tests show their biases and weaknesses again and again); and (3) identify what we are measuring (who determines the curriculum and standards, anyway?). It is time to realize that the achievement gap is a socially constructed concept and move on. Instead of framing bilingual students as “lacking,” I invite you to take a critical, social justice– and equity-based perspective on language and dialect.
García and colleagues (2021) call for a rejection of “abyssal thinking” about the language and education of racialized bilinguals. “Abyssal thinking” refers to our persistent bias that the dominant White, monolingual culture is the only legitimate source of knowledge (García et al., 2021). Through this lens, schools and professionals stigmatize bilingual students and position them as deficient through policies, assessment tools, and pedagogical practices. What if we realized that the language practices of racialized bilinguals are already legitimate—and even aligned with core standards (Flores, 2019)? This perspective brings us to our next topic—or dare I say, our next call to action: reconsidering the idea of academic language.
Rethinking Academic Language
Along with overturning deficit frameworks of bilingual learners, it’s time to reconsider the notion of academic language. Much of my own research examines students’ bilingual writing in terms of academic language features across languages. We certainly can say that any named language or dialect has a variety of registers—that is, different ways in which we talk and write depending on the audience or context, including school. Additionally, we agree that academic disciplines such as math, science, and social studies have their own vocabularies, sentence structures, and text structures, but so do art, music, and physical education. Notably, this is also the case for out-of-school activities like baking, gardening, carpentry, gaming, and playing sports.
So, what is the problem with academic language? Remember the raciolinguistic ideologies (Flores, 2019) mentioned in the introduction, and the connection between language and race? Well, here it is: What we have come to understand as academic language (i.e., the language of schooling) in the United States is historically and politically interwoven with White Mainstream English (Baker-Bell, 2019). Thus, upholding academic language as the norm perpetuates the monolingual and deficit ideologies that we are trying to reject. Think about it: “Whose linguistic and cultural norms are privileged by labels like ‘academic language’?” (Baker-Bell, 2019, p. 9). Are not the features we recognize as academic English exemplified by texts created by White, monolingual speakers in socially dominant positions (Garcia et al., 2021)?
Ultimately, an antiracist, more equitable perspective of academic language involves rejecting “dichotomous framings of language” (e.g., social vs. academic; oral vs. literate) and instead viewing bilingual students as “language architects” who can negotiate meaning, make language–content connections, and construct texts, including the skillful and creative incorporation of translingual rhetorical strategies (Flores, 2019, p. 26). It’s time to challenge our notion of academic language and acknowledge what it really is—a formal register of White, Eurocentric English and its exclusionary curriculum.
What is needed to put critical social justice frameworks about bilingualism and bilingual learners into practice? In addition to engaging in continuous self-reflection, questioning, and deep work on cultural humility, we need to embrace an equity-based, culturally sustaining approach. Culturally sustaining practices “support young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities” in an educational context of “linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism” (Paris, 2012, p. 95).
What might this look like for the SLP working with bilingual students? It might include focusing on students’ strengths and potential within a larger equity framework. It can include asking parents (with interpreters and/or cultural brokers, as appropriate) non-assuming, open-ended questions about their child’s funds of knowledge (Jenkins & Rojas, 2020). An equity-based, culturally sustaining perspective also requires that we engage with bilingual learners in ways that offer choices, promote agency and meaningful engagement, and hold high expectations.
Additionally, an equity-minded framework broadens our focus to include not only the student but also the environment or context, including language and language modality. For example, ask yourself, “How is the environment, language, or modality supporting or constraining the student? What needs to change to increase support, engagement, and success? What resources (e.g., to support translingual practices) are available?”
Take-Aways. So, what’s new in bilingualism? The joy of moving forward! Let’s recap:
- Bilingualism (including bidialectalism) is dynamic, and bilingual students’ abilities, including translingual practices, cannot be measured by monolingual criteria.
- Good-bye to deficit views of bilingual learners! These students and their languages are not “lacking”!
- However, academic language is a raciolinguistic construct: Let’s rethink it and quit insisting that all students must conform to White monolingual mainstream English in order to succeed in school.
I hope that you and your colleagues are already thinking and talking about these things. Critical social justice perspectives of bilingualism have always been around: But now, they are becoming mainstream. Let’s not lose the momentum!