#BlackLivesMatter has brought increased mainstream attention to the marginalization of Black people within US society. Though I have encountered discussions of #BlackLivesMatter in many of my social circles, I have yet to see it explicitly addressed in discussions relating to bilingual education. If bilingual education activists consider ourselves to be allies of #BlackLivesMatter we must ask ourselves: Do Black lives matters in bilingual education?

It may be tempting to reflexively answer yes. After all, Black students are welcome to participate in these programs in the same way that everybody else is welcome to participate in these programs. Yet, this logic parallels the #AllLivesMatter counter to #BlackLivesMatter that refuses to engage with the specific manifestations of anti-Blackness that #BlackLivesMatter seeks to bring attention to. In a society that was founded on anti-Blackness and continues to perpetuate anti-Blackness through its institutions, bilingual education is by default anti-Black regardless of how inclusive it prides itself on being. The only way to combat this anti-Blackness is by first recognizing it and then explicitly confronting it with the goal of dismantling it.

Below I lay out five ways that anti-Blackness may be reproduced within bilingual education. I focus specifically on Spanish-English bilingual programs both because most bilingual programs in the US continue to use these two languages and because these are the programs with which I have the most direct experience. It is possible that some of these observations are also applicable to bilingual programs that focus on other languages. It is also possible that some of these observations are also applicable to the experiences of non-Black people of color who participate in bilingual education programs. However, in this post I am centering anti-Blackness as an attempt to respond to the challenge poses by the three founders of #BlackLivesMatter to potential allies “to investigate the ways in which anti-Black racism is perpetuated in their own communities.”

  • Assuming Native English speakers are White. A common mantra in many discussions of bilingual education is that Native English speakers come from the dominant culture. This dominant position is contrasted with the marginalized status of Native Spanish speakers. The uncritical equating of Native English speaker with the dominant culture erases the anti-Blackness experienced by Black Native English speakers both inside and outside of school. An easy way to prevent this erasure is to be precise in our descriptions. This means to explicitly name the racial backgrounds of Native English speakers and to clearly distinguish those who are coming from positions of privilege (White Native English speakers) from those who are coming from positions of oppression (Black Native English speakers).
  • Erasing the experiences of Afro-Latinxs. Being Black is not mutually exclusive with being Latinx. Yet, this is often the message that is expressed in dominant representations of Latinidad within the Spanish language media in the US and Latin America that celebrate whiteness. Relying on materials developed in Latin America or Spain, as many bilingual programs do, may contribute to this celebration of whiteness and give students the impression that Black people cannot be Native Spanish speakers. The best way to counteract this erasure is for bilingual programs to actively seek out materials that include representations of Afro-Latinxs and to make concerted efforts to infuse these representations throughout the Spanish language curriculum.
  • Ignoring English language variation. Bilingual education circles that I find myself in often include discussions of Spanish language variation by country along with ways of incorporating this language variation into the Spanish language curriculum. Less common has been a discussion of variation English language variation and ways of including this in the English language curriculum. Yet, there has been a great deal of research related to features of African American English as well as exploration of ways of incorporating these features into the school curriculum. When exposing children to English in bilingual programs it is important to bring attention to and legitimize these linguistic variations by helping students to understand the historical context that allowed for their development.
  • Fetishizing two-way immersion programs as the gold standard of bilingual education. Two-way immersion programs seek to have an equal balance of Native English speakers and Native Spanish speakers. Though these programs are great when working with schools that have equal balances of the two groups, the hyper-segregation of US society means that many Black children find themselves in Black-majority schools. To insist on two-way immersion as the gold standard is to deny Black students in segregated schools the opportunity of bilingual education. It is important to develop models for high-quality bilingual education that are responsive to the many different student demographics that exist across US schools. We must also ensure that these high-quality options are equitable distributed so that low-income Black communities have as much access to these programs as affluent White communities.
  • Positioning bilingual education as a panacea for racial inequalities. In attempting to justify the investment in bilingual education programs, advocates often point to research that illustrates the effectiveness of these programs in closing the achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs as well as US business-sector needs for a bilingual workforce to remain competitive in the global economy. The pervasiveness of anti-Blackness is usually not considered in making these justifications. Being able to speak Spanish will not prevent a police officer from shooting an unarmed Black person and having bilingual skills will not in and of itself resolve the racial wage disparities that exist between Black workers and White workers. Instead, we need to situate advocacy work for bilingual education within broader efforts that work in solidary with movements such as #BlackLivesMatter that are working to dismantle anti-Blackness in US society.

While it may seen counterintuitive to focus on combating anti-Blackness in discussions of bilingual education that have most been associated with the Latinx community, as the founders of #BlackLivesMatter remind us “when Black people get free, everybody gets free.”  The only way to ensure that bilingual education is a tool for social change is to ensure that it is situated within a broader project that seeks to dismantle anti-Blackness. Anything less than this is tantamount to treating Black lives as if they don’t matter.

In recent years there has been a trend for states to pass a Seal of Biliteracy. A raciolinguistic approach to analyzing the effects of the Seal of Biliteracy needs to account for the racial disparities that currently exist between white English speakers and language-minoritized students of color. In this guest blog post, Owen Silverman Andrews , an educator and activist working in Baltimore, offers such a raciolinguistic approach to his advocacy work related to the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy. I encourage all of you to both support Owen in his efforts to reshape the Maryland policies to be more racially equitable while also applying the lessons learned from his experiences in your own communities.


Twenty-two of the United States and the District of Columbia have approved some form of a biliteracy seal to add to the diplomas of graduating high school seniors who are proficient in more than one language. The states that have approved a seal of biliteracy cut across many of the traditional dividing lines of U.S. culture and politics, including: California and Texas, New York and Georgia, Minnesota and Louisiana, Washington state and Utah. Five more state legislatures or boards of education are considering similar measures, and six more are in the “early stages” of adoption.

In seemingly stark contrast to the “language wars” in U.S. schools in the 1980s and 90s—when English only ballot measures passed in California and elsewhere and few were predicting the growing, if contested, power of Latinxs and immigrants in this country—celebrations of multilingualism have become seemingly more mainstreaming. This mainstreaming of multilingualism poses significant questions for multilinguals from oppressed communities and their allies, most pointedly: How do we move beyond seals of approval to shifting power and resources to language and dialect minoritized learners in U.S. schools?

This is a question that I have been grappling with in my advocacy work in Maryland, where I live and work with immigrants acquiring English. The General Assembly passed The Maryland Seal of Biliteracy Act and it was signed into law April 26, 2016. The Bill’s language assigned responsibility for defining biliteracy and the implementation process to the State Department of Education, and included a provision that allows county school boards to opt in or out. The State Department of Education held hearings on August 23rd. I was the only non-suit in the hearing room of the Maryland Board of Education Hearing Room.

I will save you the play by play. Suffice it to say that the definition, assessment, and access points currently being pushed by Susan Spinnato and others within the Maryland Department of Education will serve to pad the transcripts of English L1 learners in high performing schools located in wealth school districts who receive a 4 or a 5 on their foreign language AP exams. Learners whose L1 is not English will have to go to unspecified private testing institutions outside the school system to have their native language proficiency assessed at Intermediate High or higher based on ACTFEL standards to receive the same seal that their English L1 peers can obtain much more easily. In short, as it stands, Maryland’s proposed Seal of Biliteracy will reinforce education inequality along lines of wealth and language, which are often correlated to race and country of origin.

For the next month, the Board of Education will receive and review feedback from the public on the Seal’s enabling regulation. After that, it’s set in stone (for the medium-term, at least). Learner, ELL, and immigrant activists and their allies must move swiftly and bring considerable pressure to bear on the Board—particularly Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s newly minted Superintendent, Dr. Salmon—to pressure board members to revise the Seal regulation with ELL equity, access, and empowerment in mind. When contacting the Board (email susan.spinnato@maryland.gov, cc Charlene.necessary@maryland.gov, and bcc owen.s.andrews(at)gmail.com), several demands should be included (please post your letters to the Board in the comments section below):

  • English Language Learners should have access to the same in-school, curriculum-based assessment (e.g. AP tests without having to take the AP class in their LQ) to qualify for the Seal of Biliteracy as their English L1 peers.
  • The AP exam, which is much more accessible in high-performing schools in wealthy school districts with predominantly White and English L1 learners, should not be the sole means of assessment.
  • The standard should be adjusted from ACTFEL’s Intermediate-High to Intermediate-Low, which is the standard in some of the other states that have offer the Seal of Biliteracy.
  • A learner with six or more years of education in a school where a language other than English is the primary language of instruction should automatically qualify for the seal if their English is proficient enough for them to graduate from a Maryland high school.

Shifting power and resources to language- and dialect-minoritized learners in U.S. public schools begins at the grassroots, with the classroom conditions we teachers create with our learners. However, if state bureaucrats are actively working to thwart this shift by reinforcing inequity through policies like Maryland’s proposed Seal of Biliteracy regulation, we need to push back. Please take action today! Email Susan Spinnato and Charlene Necessary and call Superintendent Salmon at (410) 767-0462!

Given that implementation of some form of a biliteracy seal is now becoming the norm, rather than a cause at the vanguard of the language justice and immigrants’ rights movements, it is time to focus on next steps that empower and shift resources to the communities than a dissection of the legislative process.  The question that we must consider moving forward is how to move beyond seals of approval toward shifting power and resources to language and dialect minoritized learners in U.S. schools.

Those of you who have followed my work may be familiar with the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies. I developed this concept in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor at Stanford University. Jonathan has been at the forefront of research on the racialized bilingualism of the Latinx community in the United States. I am thrilled that he accepted my invitation to write a guest blog post. Below he weaves together personal experience with his scholarship to critically interrogate the ways that bilingual Latinxs are often positioned as languageless by schools and the broader society. This is important work with important implications for all of us. I encourage you to share it widely and to read his latest article that explores these issues in more detail referenced below.


Does the racialized subject have language? [1]

While conducting research in a predominantly Latinx Chicago public high school, I asked the principal, an institutionally savvy and administratively effective bilingual Puerto Rican woman, about the interactional divide that I observed between linguistically mainstreamed students and those classified as English Language Learners. When I suggested that these classifications obscured students’ shared bilingual repertoires, she quickly interrupted me, noting that bilingual students “don’t know the language.”

I was initially confused by this claim, but then I realized that she was using the term “bilingual” to refer to students who were designated as English Language Learners and placed into transitional bilingual education programming. In this context and in U.S. public schools more broadly, “bilingual” is often used to identify perceived linguistic deficiency (commonly termed Limited English Proficiency) rather than dexterity. I realized that the meaning of “bilingual” had been inverted from a way of characterizing abilities in two or more languages to linguistic deficiency altogether.

In reflecting on this situation, I recalled how the deep shame associated with my personal experiences of language socialization was unsettled only when I began to study linguistics as an undergraduate student. My studies challenged me to reconsider received ideas about linguistic correctness. I learned that my father’s use of “tesses” as the plural form of “test,” which he regularly used to inquire whether I had taken any “tesses” on a given school day, was a legitimate, systematic practice that reflected his experiences of socialization within a largely Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood in New York City. I had learned to perceive and police his practices as signs of deficiency—“it’s tests, dad, not tesses”—but my linguistics courses taught me that the use of “tesses” reflects both a knowledge of the so-called African American English norm of voiceless consonant cluster reduction (where /st/ becomes /s/ at the end of words such as /test/) and the so-called Mainstream American English norm of pluralization (where words ending in /s/ are pluralized as /es/).

Meanwhile, I was pushed to rethink prescriptive perspectives from which I should avoid abbreviating or cutting off the ends of Spanish forms, which resulted in my reconsideration of the dismay I experienced upon learning that what I had perceived as individual words, such as /venpaca/ (“come here”), were “actually” three separate words (/ven para aca/). Thus, I had previously perceived my home-based language practices as deficient, but these insights challenged me to see that they were in fact demonstrations of dexterity; I had associated these practices with deficiency altogether, but I was compelled to recognize their skillfulness. These practices were not signs of linguistic deficiency, but rather multilingualism and multilectalism. This was deeply unsettling! What ways of thinking had I internalized?

Many progressive educators and linguists argue that we must respond to this stigmatization by emphasizing the linguistic skillfulness of racially minoritized populations. However, in mainstream educational settings, this charge is often interpreted simply as a call for the legitimation of racially minoritized linguistic practices as legitimate starting points from which to learn “real” language. How would our schools and curricula be constructed if we perceived these practices not simply as useful starting points but rather as academically beneficial practices in their own right? How might this change in stance reshape our views of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, and policy? What ways of learning, knowing, and communicating might we fully welcome into our classrooms rather than positioning them as educational starting point? Which community members and organizations could play leadership roles in such efforts, thereby rejecting arbitrary and problematic distinctions between “academic/school language” and “home/community language?”

In a new article in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, I refer to particular institutionalized perceptions of linguistic deficiency as ideologies of languagelessness. I am interested in drawing connections between stigmatizing perceptions of racialized groups’ language practices across social and historical contexts. I show how practices that might be perceived as signs of linguistic dexterity from some perspectives are continually policed and positioned as targets for remediation in mainstream institutional settings.

Thus, seemingly innocent linguistic corrections can be linked to broader racializing processes that position particular populations as perpetually illegitimate regardless of their linguistic repertoires. I suggest that, in future efforts toward linking language and social justice, we must redirect the gaze from subaltern or racially minoritized speaking subjects to hegemonic, institutionalized ways of perceiving that perpetuate raciolinguistic inequalities. Insofar as these modes of perception function on both individual and institutional levels, we must continually interrogate our everyday practices as educators and the broader institutional structures in which these practices are situated.


[1] Nearly 30 years ago, famed postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak rocked the intellectual world by posing the provocative question: “Can the subaltern speak?” Critiques of the privileging of speaking as a mode of communication and ideologies equating speech with empowerment notwithstanding, Spivak brilliantly critiqued the deceptive ways in which European theorists often re-center normative European subjects as the loci of knowledge and ideal models of personhood at the same time that they purport to represent authentically and give “voice” to formerly colonized peoples. Thus, the question she poses is not so much about the speaking abilities of subaltern populations, but rather the distorting modes of perception through which their practices and experiences are continually perceived and represented.

In my last post, I examined the raciolinguistic underpinnings of discussions of the bilingualism of vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. I explored the double standard that exists in US society where the bilingualism of white people is celebrated in ways that it is not for Latinxs. I was also not arguing that Tim Kaine should never use Spanish. However, just because a white person like Tim Kaine knows Spanish doesn’t mean that they should feel entitled to use it with any Latinx that they meet. This begs the question, when is it appropriate for a white person to use Spanish with Latinxs in the United States

If you a white person who finds this question offensive I challenge you to reflect on what it is that you find offensive. The question does not imply that the use of Spanish by white people with Latinxs is never appropriate. It simply implies that there are times when it might not be appropriate. To feel offended at the thought that you might need to adapt your language choices to accommodate Latinxs is a product of the logic of white supremacy that is premised on people of color having to adapt their behavior to accommodate white people with white people never having to adapt their behavior to accommodate people of color.

In the spirit of challenging this logic of white supremacy, below I lay out 5 guidelines for white people who speak Spanish to consider when deciding when it may or may not be appropriate for them to use Spanish with Latinxs in the US. It is possible that some of these guidelines may also be helpful to non-Latinxs people of color who speak Spanish in the US. However, the intersection of bilingualism and whiteness is the focus of my response here.

  1. Mock Spanish is not Spanish. The first point to consider is whether you actually have proficiency in Spanish. I don’t mean that your Spanish has to be perfect—nobody speaks any language perfectly. What I mean is whether you have adequate proficiency to respectfully engage in social interactions. If your Spanish abilities end at the ability to sprinkle words such as “no problemo,” “papi,” or “comprende” you are not really using Spanish but Mock Spanish that is used to denigrate Latinxs. The general rule of thumb here is if you have never actually studied Spanish and/or had any authentic opportunities to engage with Spanish speakers and only know a few simple words then you are probably using Mock Spanish and should stop immediately.
  2. Not all Latinxs speak Spanish. This fact is not surprising considering that many Latinxs currently residing in the United States can trace their ancestry on the lands currently known as the United States to before it was the United States. Just as you wouldn’t assume that somebody whose great-grandparents immigrated from Italy speaks Italian you should not assume that all Latinxs living in the United States speak Spanish. To use Spanish with a Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish might be offensive to them in that it associates them with a language that they and their family may not have spoken for generations. Alternatively, it is possible that a Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish is embarrassed by their lack of Spanish proficiency and resents being reminded of this. The general rule of thumb should be to use English as the default language when engaging with Latinxs living in the US unless you receive indication that they speak Spanish.
  3. Not all Latinxs who speak Spanish want to use Spanish with white people. Of course even if you confirm that a Latinx you encounter in the US does speak Spanish it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to use Spanish with you. There are many reasons why this might be the case. For one, unlike with the bilingualism of white people, the bilingualism of Latinxs is often denigrated in US society. This can lead to feelings of shame about one’s bilingualism that may make Latinxs reluctant to use it outside of familial contexts. In a similar vein, a Latinx who speaks English as a second language may have insecurities about their English exacerbated when a white person tries to use Spanish with them in ways that may imply that their English isn’t good enough. In addition, both US and non-US born Latinxs may prefer to use Spanish as a way of connecting with others in the Latinx community and may simply not want to use it with white people. The general rule of thumb should be to follow the lead of the Latinxs you encounter. If they indicate a willingness to engage with you in Spanish go for it. If they do not give any indication of a desire to engage with you in Spanish then continue using English.
  4. Don’t expect Latinxs to be your Spanish teacher. It can be disappointing to want to practice your Spanish with Latinx people you encounter and have them either explicitly or implicitly refuse to engage with you in Spanish. But disappointment is not the same as oppression. On the other hand, feeling entitled to free labor from Latinxs is oppression that continues in the long history of exploitation of the knowledge of people of color for the benefit of white people. If you are truly interested in practicing your Spanish join a local Spanish conversation group, take a class, watch the Spanish media or volunteer in a Spanish-speaking community. The general rule of thumb should be to receive consent from a Latinx before practicing your Spanish with them and when possible compensating them for their time and effort either monetarily or in some other way. They are doing you a huge service and you should give them some token of your appreciation.
  5. Being bilingual doesn’t automatically make you an ally to the Latinx community. A discussion of the bilingualism of white people should not occur outside of a discussion of the broader policy agenda that you stand for. Knowing Spanish does not give you an automatic pass. You must also actively work as allies in the struggle to improve the lives of the Latinx community. This means listening to what Latinx people are saying—both in Spanish and English—about the issues that impact our community and supporting us in confronting these issues. If you are using your bilingualism more in the service of your own professional goals than the empowerment of the Latinx community you are not being an ally. You are maintaining white supremacy.

In a society where most of the population is monolingual English speaking, anybody who is bilingual, regardless of what their racial background, should be proud of this accomplishment. However, in a society that has historically and continues to be shaped by structural racism, white Spanish-speakers must be willing to directly confront the privileges afforded to you as a product of a white supremacist society. One way of doing this is for you to become comfortable with allowing Latinxs in your lives to dictate the terms and language of your interactions.

It’s official. Hillary Clinton has finally chosen her running mate. His name is Tim Kaine and in case you haven’t heard he is “fluent in Spanish.” I think it is great that Tim Kaine speaks Spanish. Bilingualism is a skill that more Americans should have. That said, I wonder why it is that his bilingualism is being celebrated while the bilingualism of the Latinx community continues to be policed and denigrated.

Apparently, Kaine learned Spanish in 1980 when he worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. That was the same year that Ronald Regan was elected president and began efforts to dismantle bilingual education for Latinx children in the United States. It was also the same year that Miami based an anti-bilingual ordinance making English the official language. The following year, English was declared the official language of Kaine’s home state of Virginia. I am certainly not blaming Kaine for these efforts. Yet, it is interesting that the same year that he as a white man was offered the opportunity to become bilingual that that bilingualism of Latinx communities in the US, including in his home state, was positioned as a threat to national unity that needed to be eliminated.

As another point of comparison, let’s look at the way that the bilingualism of Julian Castro, another potential VP choice has been discussed. In contrast to Tim Kaine he has been described as not speaking “fluent Spanish.” This has raised questions about his viability as a politician. It is, of course, unfathomable to imagine the viability of a white politician being questioned because of a perceived lack of fluency in Spanish. To expect this for Latinx politicians is working under the mistaken assumption that most Latinx people prefer Spanish to English, which is far from the truth. In fact, more and more Latinx people are positioned and position themselves as not speaking fluent Spanish. Castro’s experience no doubt resonates with many of them more than a white guy who learned Spanish as a missionary in Honduras.

Yet, what is most interesting to me is that Julian Castro—like many Latinx people who are positioned or position themselves as not fluent in Spanish—does, in fact speak Spanish. If you don’t believe me, check out this YouTube clip. Is his Spanish perfect? No. But neither is Tim Kaine’s Spanish and nobody has ever questioned his fluency. Neither is my Spanish and though people have questioned my fluency I stopped caring a long time ago. Neither is anybody’s Spanish (or English for that matter). The fact of the matter is that with a little bit of help from the interviewer Castro was able to have a perfectly intelligible conversation in Spanish.

This is a textbook example of a raciolinguistic ideology. For a white politician it is an asset to have any Spanish-speaking abilities. For a Latinx politician it is a liability not to have perfect Spanish-speaking abilities. This stance is particularly ironic for a society that has at many points actually worked to undermine the bilingualism of the Latinx community.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the most vocal proponents of this raciolinguistic ideology are often Latinx people who have internalized this white supremacist framing of language and see it as their duty to police the Spanish language skills of other Latinx people. A recent example of such policing was the backlash that actress Gina Rodriguez received after posting a message in Spanish on Instagram. Meanwhile, we often celebrate non-Latinx (mostly white) celebrities who “show off their Spanish skills.”

So if you are a Latinx person who finds yourself a victim of this type of language policing follow Gina Rodriguez’s lead and reject their attempt at policing your identity. If you are a Latinx person who finds yourself engaging in this type of language policing of other Latinx people stop doing this. It is a behavior rooted in white supremacy that serves to divide us rather than to bring us together. If you a white person who speaks Spanish who finds yourself engaging in this type of language policing of Latinx people take several seats. You have benefited from a white supremacist framework that has always commended you for your Spanish abilities while criticizing us for our Spanish. And if you a white politician trying to get Latinx people to vote for you, we’re going to need more than a white VP who speaks Spanish.


A few years ago I was talking with an assistant principal of a bilingual school. He cited research about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism as a primary rationale for his school’s bilingual approach. Yet, he also lamented the fact that many of the Latinx students at his school were “lost in translation” in that they didn’t have full competency in Spanish or English. I was left wondering how it was possible for bilingualism to be positioned as leading to cognitive benefits while actual bilingual children were positioned as linguistically deficient.

This deficit perspective of the bilingualism of Latinx students is certainly not new, though its framing has changed over time. Prior to the 1960s researchers argued that bilingualism led to cognitive deficiencies. These alleged cognitive deficiencies were used to explain the low IQ scores of Latinx students. The basic argument was that bilingualism confused Latinx students and inhibited their cognitive development.

This perspective was not without its critics. These critics argued that the bilingualism of Latinx students was not the barrier that prevented them from scoring well on intelligence tests. Instead, they pointed to quality of instruction as the primary culprit, pointing to the ways that Latinx students were being denied access to the knowledge that they needed to do well on these assessments.

In the 1960’s, researchers changed their mind and decided that bilingualism led to cognitive advantages. Did this mean that Latinx bilingual children were smarter than monolingual white children? Perish the thought! Researchers, instead, concluded that while the bilingualism of white middle and upper class children led to cognitive advantages, the bilingualism of Latinx children was still deficient as determined by language assessments in both English and Spanish.  As a result many of these children were labeled “semilingual” or not fully proficient in either language.

Once again, this deficit framing received strong criticism. Critics pointed to the cultural biases of the language assessments used to determine language proficiency. They contrasted these assessments with the rich language practices that exist in Latinx communities. For these scholars, the issue was not one of language deficit but rather language difference. From this perspective, the role of schools should be not to pathologize these language differences but instead to build on the home language practices of Latinx students as they learn the academic language of schooling.

This critique of semilingualism has led to the term essentially disappearing from both scholarly practitioner discussions of the bilingualism of Latinx students. Nevertheless, its specter remains firmly entrenched in how the bilingualism of Latinx students continues to be discussed. One example is the category of so-called Long-Term English Learners, who have not tested as proficient in English on a language proficiency assessment after 7 years. These students have been framed by scholars and educators as having failed to master academic language in either English or Spanish. Once again we have a linguistic categorization in academic research of bilingual Latinx students that positions them as not fully proficient in either English or Spanish.

As has been the case with previous iterations of deficit perspectives we also have scholars trying to disprove these claims. In a recent guest blog post, Maneka Brooks provided data that illustrate the linguistic dexterity of one student who has been designated a Long-Term English Learner. I have made similar claims in an article written with Tatyana Kleyn and Kate Menken. Similar to in previous eras, critics of these deficit framings seek to shift the onus from perceived deficiencies of Latinx students toward school curricula and pedagogical approaches. Our argument has been that schools should treat the bilingualism of Latinx students categorized as Long-Term English Learners as a starting point for teaching them new language practices associated with schooling.

It would appear that decades of critiques challenging these deficit perspectives have accomplished little more than shift the terminology while doing little to challenge the continued marginalization of Latinx students. Perhaps the problem is that there is no linguistic basis for any of these claims. Instead, they are rooted in the logic of white supremacy that begins from the premise that assessments can objectively determine one’s intelligence and language proficiency. Those of us who have worked to challenge deficit perspectives have often overlooked this logic of white supremacy in favor of calls for building bridges between the homes language practices of Latinx children and the language practices of schooling. But what does it mean to build bridges between Latinx communities and white supremacy? Is that even something that we want to do?

Perhaps it is time for a new approach to challenge these deficit framings of the bilingualism of Latinx children. This new approach would refuse to engage in the debate about the legitimacy of the bilingualism of these children. It would resist the white gaze that seeks to evaluate the language practices of these students from the perspective of their proximity to whiteness. It would, instead, bring attention to the ways that the white listening subject overdetermines these language practices as deficient. But more importantly, this alternative approach would situate advocacy work for Latinx and other language-minoritized children within a larger project to dismantle the white supremacy and capitalist relations of power that are the root cause of these deficit perspectives to begin with.

How might this perspective respond to the assistant principal mentioned at the beginning of this post? It would begin by refocusing attention away from the speakers and towards the listener. It would ask the assistant principal to reflect on his own listening practices and why it is that he hears the language practices of his students in deficient ways. It would push him to imagine alternative framings of the language practices of his students that do not begin with the yardsticks offered by language assessments. It would also push the assistant principal to critically interrogate the institutional forces that have led his initial listening practices to dominate his perspective. But most importantly, it would not except this assistant principal to do it on his own and would instead seek to connect new listening practices with broader efforts at structural transformation.

For so long those of us seeking to challenge deficit perspectives have sought to legitimize the language practices of language-minoritized children. Perhaps it is now time to shift our focus to the white supremacist eyes and ears of the listener.

Those of you who have followed my work know that I am extremely critical of the label long-term English learner. I have argued that the category reflects a raciolinguistic ideology that positions these students as deficient while a white student who engages in similar bilingual language practices would be categorized as linguistically gifted. I have posed a challenge to our field to reconceptualize the language practices of so-called long-term English learners outside of the white gaze and the white listening subject.

One person who has been leading these efforts is Maneka Brooks, currently an assistant professor of reading education at Texas State University. I am honored and thrilled that she accepted my invitation to write a guest blog where she describes her research. This is important work that I hope you share with your colleagues.


There has been an explosion of academic and popular articles lamenting the crisis of long-term English learners (LTELs) in U.S. schools. Although these students have spent many years in the U.S. school system (usually six or more), they remain classified as “learning English.” These publications frequently caution educators not to be seduced by LTELs abilities to use English (and other languages) in multifaceted situations. LTELs are frequently described as lacking proficiency in any language. For instance, a recent publication from the National Education Association describes their language as “imprecise and inadequate for deeper expression and communication.” Every time I read these types of description, I cringe. These characterizations are in stark contrast to the capabilities of the adolescents with whom I have worked.

I draw on the words of 16-year-old Eliza (a pseudonym) to illustrate what a student who is considered an LTEL can do in English. The following quotation was taken from a conversation in which Eliza was discussing her new 20-year-old stepmother:

At least I am smart about my education and me being independent when I grow up. Not just getting somebody you really like and wanting to get with them. Yeah so, I was like…oh yeah I think of her life. I wonder if she would go—like would have gone to college and not just get married right away. It’s like a fairytale in a way. ‘Cause she got married when she was eighteen. I think it’s a fairytale because I know some girls out there that would be like, ‘I wish that somebody could come and get me and take me to another place.’

In this excerpt, Eliza engages in multiple sophisticated linguistic moves that are celebrated by the Common Core and other educational standards. For example, she does not solely critique her stepmother’s decisions. She uses a simile to convey her stepmother’s viewpoint. Moreover, Eliza explains how this simile is relevant to this specific context. Eliza’s language is precise and communicates a deep understanding of multiple perspectives and life trajectories.

How can someone with the ability to use English in this manner remain classified as an EL for 11 years? In order to fully understand Eliza’s extended classification as an EL, it is important to recognize that the criteria used to determine students’ English proficiency varies according to their language background. For students who come from households where English is the only language spoken, their home language environment is sufficient to be considered proficient in English. Their academic performance does not play a role in making this determination. On the other hand, Eliza’s EL classification meant that she had to demonstrate her English proficiency through specific levels of performance on multiple measures. Depending on the district, these measures can include assessments of oral English, written English, English language arts, and math. In addition, classroom grades and teacher approval are often included. These criteria expand beyond the knowledge of English to include various measures of academic achievement and compliance with school policies.

The multiple criteria that Eliza needed to meet to be considered proficient in English must be taken into account when understanding her trajectory as a high school student. It cannot be assumed that the primary reason that she remains classified as an EL is because of her English proficiency. This interpretation reflects a very narrow understanding of the various measures that are used to determine English proficiency. For instance, the fact that a student does not perform at a certain level on standardized assessment of English language arts (ELA) does not mean that s/he has yet to acquire English. The existence of monolingual English-speakers with “low” scores on ELA assessments illustrates that there is not one test score that is synonymous with English proficiency. Moreover, there is an extensive research literature that highlights multiple factors that can impact how an individual performs on an assessment. These factors include, but are not limited to, differences in background knowledge, test anxiety, and biases within the test itself. Unfortunately, these considerations are frequently pushed to the periphery when discussing so-called LTELs.

In working with students like Eliza, I have witnessed how the LTEL lens can be harmful when used to guide teaching and learning. The normative LTELs lens obscures what this population of adolescent bilinguals is able to do with literacy, their experiences with literacy, and the nature of their literacy difficulties. For instance, I found that the everyday academic reading experiences of five students who were identified as LTELs were very different from the kinds of reading practices that were used as evidence of English proficiency on assessments. Reading in the classroom primarily centered on oral reading in groups; however, the tests gave priority to silent and individual comprehension. Rather than not “knowing” English, my research highlighted that these students were inexperienced with the tested reading practices. In other publications, I have demonstrated how the prevalent descriptions of LTELs dismiss the way in which students in this demographic are engaging in successful academic literacy practices within the classroom and other spaces.

The predominant framing of the LTEL marginalizes many young people’s sophisticated use of English and erases other relevant aspects of their identities and experiences. I argue that a more productive instructional orientation would center on creating academic environments in which this population can experience on-going success. This orientation entails moving away from seeing, representing, and teaching students who are labeled as LTELs as individuals who have “broken” or “incomplete” linguistic abilities. A first step toward in this journey is for administrators, educators, and researchers to recognize and incorporate the linguistic expertise (in English and other languages) that so-called LTELs bring into the classroom. On a more holistic level, this instructional orientation requires designing learning experiences that are situated in a multidimensional understanding of the academic, social, and linguistic abilities and experiences of these young people. These students deserve an educational experience that provides this kind of respect and academic enrichment.

%d bloggers like this: