‘Monolingualism Is A Curable Disease!’ was a slogan I first saw on t-shirts worn by attendees at the 2012 annual conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE). Because of my experiences living and traveling abroad since my early youth, I had been aware for quite some time that monolingualism was not the norm outside of my country of birth. But it wasn’t until early adulthood that I truly understood why the vast majority of U.S. children who grow up in monolingual English households never develop the ability to communicate in another language. Because English is viewed as the world’s lingua franca, developing true multilingualism in our students is simply not a priority for our nation’s schools. This was actually the initial reason why I decided to stop working as a university Spanish instructor and opted to instead to earn a doctorate in Bilingual Education from NYU. I wanted to learn how I could help prevent what I had witnessed with so many of my first-year university students. That is, after having had taken years of Spanish prior to their arrival in my classroom, most of these young women and men could not have simple conversations about topics such as what they did during a typical day or what their childhood was like (And keep in mind that many of these individuals had attended some of the most well-respected K-12 schools in the country). This was definitely not what I wanted for future university students. Instead, I wanted them to have already obtained true linguistic and cultural fluency and to experience all of the wonder that such fluency brings.
The solution to the lack of multilingualism among U.S. youth from monolingual English households is actually a simple one, but it requires a serious commitment on the part of school administration, world language faculty, and of course, the students themselves. Language acquisition is an active process in which the student participates (versus information that a student learns) and must consistently take place in order for a high level of proficiency to be developed over time. In terms of a student’s academic schedule, this would mean that she has this subject every day of the week. And while skills such as reading, writing, and listening are vital to the language acquisition process, it is essential that the vast majority of class time involve the students maximizing their oral production of the language itself. For too many years I saw the end product of poor language teaching with my first-year university students. Although most could understand a great amount of what they heard and read, once again, their oral language proficiency was very low. In virtually every case, the reason for this was due to the fact that the student had been taught about the language (i.e., learning), instead of how to communicate through it (i.e., acquisition). It is not necessary to list the differences between the two different approaches here. But it’s important to point out that, unlike the conscious process of learning about language, acquiring a language is a subconscious process in which the student is thinking in the “target” language while communicating.
I can picture many administrators and teachers rolling their eyes as they read the above paragraph’s reference to offering world languages every day of the school week. This is because, although this IS the ideal scenario, in most schools it just simply does not take place. In such schools wherein world language classes aren’t offered every day, students must compensate by communicating in the particular language with others who also can communicate in that language (during social periods of the school day and/or outside of school), e.g., most likely fellow classmates and friends. As one can already see, this takes commitment on the part of the student. However, if a student wants to achieve a high level of proficiency or even fluency in the target language (which in my opinion should be the goal of any school that offers world languages), she must be willing to invest time communicating in that language outside of the classroom. This is actually the case no matter how often the language classes are offered.
Earlier it was said that because English is considered the world’s lingua franca, developing a high level of proficiency or even fluency in other languages simply is not a priority for our nation’s schools. Why then would those from the 2012 NABE conference go so far as referring to monolingualism as a “disease”? Well, I believe that like a disease, being able to communicate in solely one language serves as an impediment to an individual, an impediment that once again the majority of this world’s inhabitants do not experience. The cognitive and social benefits of multilingualism have been well established by language researchers. In line with these, I will end this first blog with an anecdote that should convince anyone that being able to communicate in more than one language is always a good thing.
As a young boy raised in central Pennsylvania, I was painfully shy, kind of a loner, and not a fan of any change in environment. Then one summer day just before my tenth birthday, my mom and dad moved the family to La Guajira peninsula of Northern Colombia. While my parents and I were worried about how this dramatic change in environment and culture would affect me, I immediately fell in love with the sounds by which I was surrounded, sounds that I knew made up a language called ‘Spanish.’ During that entire academic year, I couldn’t get enough of what would become my second language. Both inside and outside the classroom, I spoke Spanish as much as possible, and by the end of my sole academic year in Colombia (for safety reasons, my family had decided it best for us to move back to the U.S.), although I had what would be characterized as low to intermediate levels of spoken and written proficiency in the language, I was determined to achieve communicative fluency in Spanish upon our return to the U.S. Fast forward a few years when I won multiple state awards in high school for having demonstrated such fluency, which contributed to my earning early admission to the only university to which I applied.
Without fluency in Spanish, I never would have experienced academic success as a Spanish major and Latin American Studies minor at Miami University. I never would have achieved professional success as a bilingual sales representative in Hialeah (Miami), Florida. I never would have obtained permission from the U.S. government to travel to La Habana, Cuba to conduct a research study on the presence of José Martí in public space, which evolved into my thesis for my M.A. in Spanish. I never would have taught Spanish at two of the most respected universities in the country. I never would have attended and received my Ph.D. in Bilingual Education from NYU. And I certainly never would have learned all that I did from countless U.S. Latino students regarding the tremendous gap between the quality of education that they receive in our nation’s schools, by and large, and that of their White peers. This final benefit in the list is without a doubt the greatest of them all. For in the end, had I never achieved fluency in Spanish, I might not be standing where I stand now, i.e., alongside my Latino sisters and brothers, among other marginalized groups in this country, as an ally for social justice.