Toku reo toku ohōho*

*Māori for “My Language, my awakening”

It is increasingly apparent that in the US formal school settings do not adequately support the learning of students whose home languages are other than standard English. Discrimination on linguistic grounds is still permissible, and even promoted, while other forms of discrimination are legally curtailed. Policy matters relating to the education of children who do not speak English as a mother tongue enter the realm of public discourse, with educators often drowned out by bigoted monolingual English speakers, and others who do not value multilingualism. James Crawford (2000), an outspoken advocate of bilingual education, states,

“In a small way when government offers bilingual assistance, it elevates the status of language minorities. It suggests that immigrants and Native peoples need not abandon their heritage to be considered American-or at least to be given    access to democratic institutions. In short, it alters structures of power, class, and ethnicity. The demand for language restrictions, by contrast, is a demand to reinforce the existing social order.”

Echoing these thoughts, Jill Kerper Mora (2000), questions what society hopes to accomplish through language restriction as an official language policy. “At the heart of the matter”, Mora states, “are the core principles of democracy in a culturally and linguistically diverse society”. Mora goes on to ask, “Is the use of other languages really a threat to our national unity, or are not intolerance and coercion a far greater threat to our unity?” The Ethnic Studies Now! campaign has seen over six school districts in California pass legislation to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. Diversity of experience can only make our lives richer, and questioning hegemony and dominant power structures is essential to combat intolerance and coercion. Language plays a key role in rehumanizing education.

With formal education failing too many language minority students, the more we know about nonformal bilingual education the better we can play to student strengths. There is no doubt that mastery of academic English is of benefit to students, however years of research now unequivocally points to fluency in the home language as key to acquisition and learning of social and academic language in subsequent tongues. Language use can never be taken out of context. The languages and discourses a child grows up with are an integral part of what makes them whole and their use surpasses mere communicative goals. We build bonds with those around us with language, and language colors family life, and ties us to our communities.

Bartlett and Bajaj (2015) outline the importance of understanding and supporting ‘nonformal bilingual education’. The distinction between ‘learning’ a language and ‘acquiring’ a language is not as clear-cut as some would have us believe. Acquisition can be seen as the lesser of the two actions, when it is viewed as a ‘subconscious’ activity, rather than an intentional act. Bartlett and Bajaj affirm that (language) acquisition can be planned (not unconscious) or unplanned. They state, “bilingual speakers pragmatically access and assess their multiple linguistic and cultural resources as they participate in plural social networks”. Drawing on qualitative interviews with US students classified as LTELLs (long term English language learner), Flores, Kleyn and Menken (2015) recognize that students classified as English Language Learners “utilize a vast and flexible linguistic repertoire that allows them to negotiate many different cultural spaces and create fluid identities”. But “because of the epistemic racism of idealized monolingualism, the fluid bilingual use of language reported by students in this study does not translate into academic success”.

I was having a hard time pulling this post together but today when I flew into South Africa I thought about the term bilingual, and how it should not necessarily imply proficiency in the second (third, and so on) tongue. On the plane I watched a documentary that discussed art in Ghana. A singer who was interviewed commented that she sang in a language that wasn’t as popular as another language (I can’t remember the specifics). I’m pretty sure she mixed about three languages into her songs, in any case. There are formal uses of the term bilingual, such as in a work situation, but I would not hesitate to call many of the children at Joe Slovo (the children I work with here in South Africa) bilingual. As I write this Ofelia Garcia’s introduction of the term ‘emergent bilingual’ makes more and more sense. The further away we can get from terms that reinforce a deficit view of children (such as English learner) the greater the chance of potentially changing mindsets in the classroom and altering policy that pushes students into a corner, with limited means to escape. It’s exciting to the see the work that is being done in this field, but change never happens overnight, especially when addressing such a politically charged issue that threatens English dominance and hegemonic posturing.


Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity: US language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113–132.

Lesley Bartlett, & Bajaj, M. (2015). Chapter 25: Nonformal Bilingual Education. In W. E. Wright, S. Boun, & O. García (Eds.), The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education (pp. 428–446). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Mora, J. K. (2000). Proposition 227: Two Years Later. Retrieved from


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