A Thought On Deficits and Language Education

Those whose English is not at native-speaker levels are placed into the ELL box in public schools, and the label is more harmful than helpful, in my opinion. Teachers I’ve known have referred to these students as [their] ELLs, as if this attribute was their most defining characteristic.

This is not to say that these students do not need help with the language, but this label connotes a linguistic deficit, and an overall deficit, whereas their language skills are probably stronger than those of their classmates.

Think of it this way. While a handful probably do arrive in school without knowing the Roman alphabet, most come fluent in another language and with rudimentary (or better) skills in English, whereas many Americans will never get beyond “hello” and “goodbye” in another language. These students start from a point of knowing more than one language and should be seen as some of our most valuable learners instead of poor little creatures who need help.

Similarly, though a bit differently, students of color are often shamed for not speaking “correct” English. We are told to adopt the dominant register and diction, and that we are behind if we are unable to do so. While Af-Am Vernacular English isn’t an entirely different language, the ability to float between it and standard American English is itself a strength rather than a weakness.

Am I advocating that all students who use slang be considered fully bilingual? Not really. However a term being used in many of the scholarly articles I’ve been reading is “emergent bilinguals,” and perhaps many students of color (depending on their background) can be considered “emergeny biculturals.” The terminology and jargon don’t matter much to me (I hate jargon anyway), but any way that we can move on from deficit-based teaching would be to the benefit of the majority of our students, and in fact would help the mainstream students as well.

Just my brief thoughts on this, and of course I didn’t cite any studies here, so feel free to disagree. I’ll get back into full scholar mode once school resumes next week.


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