I have written a previous post debunking the so-called language-gap. In this post I flip the script and imagine a world where interventions have been developed for monolingual White children using the same language gap discourse.
It is a well-documented fact that by the age of 5 monolingual White children will have heard 30 million fewer words in languages other than English than bilingual children of color. In addition, they will have had a complete lack of exposure to the richness of non-standardized varieties of English that characterize the homes of many children of color. This language gap increases the longer these children are in school. The question is what causes this language gap and what can be done to address it?
The major cause of this language gap is the failure of monolingual White communities to successfully assimilate into the multilingual and multidialectal mainstream. The continued existence of White ethnic enclaves persists despite concerted efforts to integrate White communities into the multiracial mainstream since the 1960s. In these linguistically isolated enclaves it is possible to go for days without interacting with anybody who does not speak Standardized American English providing little incentive for their inhabitants to adapt to the multilingual and multidialectal nature of US society.
This linguistic isolation has a detrimental effect on the cognitive development of monolingual White children. This is because linguistically isolated households lack the rich translanguaging practices that are found in bilingual households and the elaborate style-shifting that occurs in bidialectal households. This leaves monolingual White children without a strong metalinguistic basis for language learning. As a result, many of these monolingual White children lack the school-readiness skills needed for foreign language learning and graduate from school having mastered nothing but Standardized American English leaving them ill-equipped to engage in intercultural communication.
“Multilingual Talks” is a new project that seeks to address this language gap between monolingual White children and bilingual and bidialectal children of color. It seems to do this by offering monolingual White parents metalinguistic training that is intended to provide them a foundation in different languages and language varieties. These parents will also be provided with a “language pedometer” that helps them keep track of the number of times that they use a language or language variety other than Standardized American English when speaking with their children. They will also be providing with a library of multilingual and multidialectal books and coached on how to effectively read them with their children to ensure strong metalinguistic development.
Multilingual Talks has recently received a 5 million dollar grant to pilot their approach in a White community that has struggled to eradicate monolingualism. The initial findings have been positive. Home coaches have reported an increased use of languages other than English as well as metalinguistic discussions related to different varieties of English by parents in their interactions with children. The project is currently moving into phase 2 where home coaching will be decreased and the parents will be expected to keep a daily log of their language use to ensure that they continue to talk to their children in languages other than English and expose their children to non-standardized varieties of English. These daily logs will be shared with home coaches on a monthly basis. The goal will be to track the students once they begin school to track their continued language development.
Multilingual Talks is one of many such projects that have emerged in recent years to address the language gap. What unites all of these projects is the idea of addressing the problem where it begins–in the linguistic isolation of the homes of monolingual White children. The hope is that by training monolingual White parents to interact with their children in ways that develop the metalinguistic awareness needed for language learning success, these children will come in better prepared to learn new languages and become successful members of the multilingual and multidialectal US mainstream.
To be clear, I do not agree with the deficit framing of monolingual White children expressed above. Yet, if you found any of the description offensive or problematic you might want to consider the fact that this exact discourse is used to describe the language practices of low-income communities of color on a daily basis by researchers, policymakers and teachers. Even more troubling, the Multilingual Talks intervention described above is based on a real intervention that has received positive media attention. This raises the question of why it is that such an intervention is seen as absurd for monolingual White communities while it is seen as acceptable for low-income communities of color.
The challenges faced by low-income communities of color will not be eliminated by interventions developed to address a supposed language gap. Instead, these challenges will only be eliminated when we dismantle the racial hierarchies that permeate US society. Language education can only play a role in dismantling these racial hierarchies when it rejects deficit discourses and begins from the premise that all children are socialized into complex home language practices that could and should be incorporated into the school curriculum.