What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?

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.

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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.

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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.

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56 comments
  1. Reblogged this on Loving Language and commented:
    I have tried to articulate the problem of monolingualism, even offering a “cure” for monolingualism. Regardless of the satire of this piece, this rings 100% true, “This linguistic isolation has a detrimental effect on the cognitive development of monolingual White children.”

    Why would the linguistic mainstream deprive their children of what is proven to offer a cognitive advantage, teaching them another language?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This is truly a brilliant piece. The most important quote IMHO is this, “This linguistic isolation has a detrimental effect on the cognitive development of monolingual White children.” Those who insist on the dominant monolingual paradigm deprive their children of cognitive advantages.

    The second most important IMHO is this, “The major cause of this language gap is the failure of monolingual White communities to successfully assimilate into the multilingual and multidialectal mainstream.” Humanity tends to be multilingual in urban settings. Why does America fight this reality?

    Thank you so much for this!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comment and for reblogging the post. I appreciate your attempt to take what was meant as satire and illuminate the grain of truth that is hidden within the satire. To be completely honest, I am quite skeptical of any claims that certain types of language correlate with low cognitive development. This correlation has its roots in eugenics but is able to cloud the racism at its core with seemingly objective terminology such as “low cognitive development.” That said, I haven’t really considered what it would mean to literally believe that monolingualism causes cognitive deficiencies (or at least in your words denies cognitive advantages). This seems like a great way of flipping the script, even if I don’t completely agree with the premise (especially since saying this will not harm monolingual children in the ways that the standard script has harmed and continues to harm low-income children of color.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “I am quite skeptical of any claims that certain types of language correlate with low cognitive development. This correlation has its roots in eugenics but is able to cloud the racism at its core with seemingly objective terminology such as “low cognitive development.”

        This is very interesting and absolutely resonates with me. Having worked with students from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, including students with special needs with very limited verbal skills, I agree that we have to be very careful with how we link language and cognitive development. What you are writing about is extremely powerful.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the comment. My background is not in special education so I especially appreciate you sharing that perspective. It is an important one that often gets overlooked in educational linguistics.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think you are correctly suspicious of anyone who claims that one group is more or less “cognitively developed” than another. In this case, I think that there is evidence that one can benefit a child’s cognitive development.

        I have read some of the literature on cognitive development among bilingual children, and evidence seems to indicate that bilingual children have certain cognitive advantages, especially in executive function. It has also been known for a while that bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. You can find a summary of research in the area of bilingualism on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_advantages_of_bilingualism).

        Based on this I would say that we deprive children of a practical skill (knowing another language) and of a certain kind of cognitive development by our method of language education. For example, decent language education doesn’t begin until high school, rather than kindergarten. Also, language programs are having funding cut.

        Finally, I believe that much of the multilingualism natural to the US (where I live) has been eliminated through violence and shame. We could have the most multilingual society on earth–with all its advantages–but violent and shaming pushes to conformity eliminate this possibility.

        Liked by 1 person

      • We could however link “monolingualism,” “ethnic White enclaves” and their failure to integrate with intolerance and the systematic racial and social inequality that you so brilliantly satired. Lovely post.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely. So often the narrative is “people stick with their own kind” which erases the structural inequalities at the root of segregation.

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      • Thanks for sharing some of the research on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. I am aware of this research but from my experience in the field it often gets taken up in problematic ways. In particular, I have heard people say that cognitive benefits come from “balanced bilingualism” or having equal proficiencies in both languages, which is a very limited way of describing bilingualism that may inadvertently marginalize the bilingualism of low-income people of color. Even more troublesome is the “threshold hypothesis” which posits that cognitive advantages only come when you read a certain threshold on proficiency in both languages through mastery of Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Though I believe this argument to be well-meaning and it has played an important role in advocacy work in bilingual education a major unintended consequence are precisely the deficit discourses of low-income students of color that I am criticizing in this post. I am thrilled that this post has led to such an interesting dialogue. Thanks for your comments :-).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Brilliant piece. A must read for anyone wondering how to reframe the deficit model thinking around learning Eng. As an additional lang. Thank you for this poignant up layering of the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is fantastic! And while I get that you are criticising deficit discourses, I do think monolingualism puts children at a disadvantage, regardless of the colour or class of the child!

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    • Thanks for your comment. I get what you are saying though I am not sure I could call monolingualism a disadvantage in the US context if by disadvantage you mean that it is a barrier to success. On the contrary, many of the most powerful people and communities in the US are proudly monolingual. So while I agree with you that we should encourage bi/multilingualism for all of our children I hesitate to call monolingualism a disadvantage (especially for White middle and upper class people) because they are not oppressed because of their monolingualism in the ways that low-income bilingual communities are in the US. Thanks again for your comment :-).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, absolutely! In terms of privilege, of existing power structures, of which language is taken seriously, of “barriers to success” and so on, having standard American English as one’s only language is no disadvantage at all. I completely agree.

        But in every other way, in terms of being able to think critically, understand the world around us, appreciate diversity, use our own good minds to grow and learn, be aware of ourselves as parts of the world rather than its centre… Basically in all the non-political ways (leaving oppression and hierarchy and privilege and power aside), being monolingual–even in the dominant language–seems to me to be a terrible disadvantage. And being “proudly” monolingual? I guess I just don’t get how one could be proud of not knowing (and not wanting to know) more ways of understanding the world.

        So yes, I really appreciate the point you are making with your post, and the way you are turning the tables with the deficit model. And in writing this reply, I am reminded again that trying to leave power and privilege out of a discussion like this does take it to a place that is so theoretical that there’s maybe no point in even discussing it… I just get all excited about multilingualism and jump in without thinking it through!

        This is the first post of yours I’ve come across. Loved it. Followed you and am looking forward to the new stuff and the archives. 🙂

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      • Yes. It sounds like we agree that bi/multilingualism is a wonderful gift that is not valued enough in US society.

        Liked by 1 person

      • radelman2007 said:

        And this, I think, is the core of what should rub us all the wrong way. Wonderful piece. Wish I had written it!

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  5. Rachel said:

    Brilliant! Hilarious, I loved it! I’m probably one of those “poor monolingual White children” who emerged from primary school “ill-prepared to learn new languages and become a successful member of the multidialectal and multilingual mainstream”… at least I’ve gained metalinguistic awareness and integrated better now, lol! So great!

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    • Thanks for the comment! Of course, I don’t really subscribe to such a deficit view of monolingual White children and am sure you had a linguistically rich upbringing just like every other child in the world :-). The sad thing for me is that we can laugh about this post because we know that monolingual White children will never be treated this way. My wish is that eventually this type of description is something that we will laugh about for all children because we will realize how absurd it is to describe any child or community in this way.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Rachel said:

        Weirdly, I don’t think it will be too long before this becomes the official line here in Australia. I don’t think it will ever be put as harshly – we don’t speak as harshly, in an official capacity, about the children of immigrants – but I don’t think it will be very long before it’s cast as a disadvantage to speak just one language.

        Currently Australians (or, rather, “Anglo-Saxon” Australians and those who have been here more than four generations) are shockingly bad at speaking more than one language, but the government is pushing *very* hard for us to consider ourselves an Asian nation – and the teaching of Asian languages in schools is right at the top of the list. The only immersion schools I know of use Mandarin as the target language, and now and then official people even talk about taking languages like French, German, and Italian out of the classroom in favour of Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean – which I disagree with, of course, although I can see the point. It would be hard to find a French-speaker or German-speaker who didn’t also speak brilliant English, but Mandarin and Korean are considered very important trade languages in our region.

        I reblogged the post on my blog, by the way, because I think the point your trying to make is quite valid here, anyway, although not quite the same. For example, while the talk in primary schools is about ESL for immigrant children from non-English-speaking homes, it’s generally accepted that the majority of students who go on to university will be from those same non-English-speaking homes.

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  6. Daniel said:

    Also, let’s not forget the lack of family support that leads to those unfortunate White children having deficient social skills and low emotional intelligence – the empirically demonstrated “EQ gap” that just shows how far they’re being “left behind.” After all, kids were meant to grow up surrounded by their aunties and cousins all the time, but too many White children just have their mother to talk to. And did you ever see the way those people talk to their children, asking them questions all the time?? It’s no wonder they aren’t very funny and don’t know how to tell an interesting story.

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  7. This is clever and insightful as a turn of the trope exercise, always valuable, I think. But the ultimate take-away point is mistaken: you are arguing against any kind of standard language in an extremely large language community with more than 500 million users, and that simply isn’t educationally responsible: one of the major paths for employment opportunities (and one way in which the English-speaking world and countries differ from e.g. Europe) is precisely the labor mobility that comes from being able to interact in and control a standard (written and spoken) language. You are arguing, in the end, against picking *any* standard to write curricula, newspapers, government and employment documents, etc. in. Such a system is imaginable, but requires that the entire society become semi-proficient in a wide range of registers or dialects, or that a few gatekeepers translate from one variety to another. This is unworkable and leads to fragmentation of education and employment: see much work on the differential successes of similar projects in post-colonial Africa vs India, for example. (Continued below…)

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  8. (…Continued from above.) One can point out the unfairness of the fact that some kids are exposed to and become proficient in the standard with less effort (never with no effort, though) than others, and that this unfairness tracks racial lines in some parts of the US (but is not isomorphic with race, on either side), but at the end of the day, we need to either agree that a standard written (and to a lesser extent, spoken) form is useful for a complex society, or not. I think a standard is important, and brings many more benefits for its population than hindrances. Therefore, efforts to destigmatize nonstandard varieties (which I support) should not be confused with a repudiation of the standard entirely. (As for the 30 million word project of Dana Suskind et al., this is an entirely different issue: the populations of kids on the south side of Chicago that she’s working with are not bilingual or even bidialectal, and confusing the two projects does no-one any favors–it only leads to misunderstandings, not progress.)

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    • Thanks for your comment. The point I was trying to make in this post was that deficit views of the language practices of low-income students of color are problematic and are based on racist assumptions. I believe that all children are socialized into complex home language practices and have competencies in a range of registers when they arrive in school that should be built upon to create linguistically and culturally responsive curricula. The issue of whether we need to pick *any* standard was not what I was exploring in this post.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for this reply. You made the point I also wished to convey. I too agree with efforts to destigmatize nonstandard varieties. However, concerns about the language foundations of children of color are not necessarily based upon racist assumptions or a belief that their language practices are deficient in and of themselves. Does not successful integration into a community necessitate fluency in the primary language of that community? Assuming all “deficit views” are racist immediately shuts down dialogue and may lead to the automatic dismissal of valid points and potentially beneficial ideas for helping low-income children of color to be successful.

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      • Thanks for your comment. I think you and I may be coming from different theories of language. I wholeheartedly disagree with any deficit view of language that is positioned as an objective description of reality. From my perspective, informed by sociolinguistic theories that go back to Labov’s work in the 1960s, ALL children are proficient in the primary language of their community and no community’s language practices are objectively superior to any other. Building on this argument, to argue that low-income children of color are deficient simply because they do not conform to the language practices of monolingual White middle and upper class communities is therefore to naturalize racial hierarchies and is, therefore, racist. If we want to talk about language difference and grapple with how to affirm students home language practices while also providing them access to the “codes of power” that is a different story with no simple answer. But to make seemingly objective claims about so-called deficiencies of low-income communities of color is not a perspective that I am willing to consider as a starting point for any conversation nor do I think starting from this deficit perspective will ever benefit communities of color.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am obviously unfamiliar with the terminology regarding this topic. Perhaps “disadvantage” might be a better word than “deficit” as far as what I’m trying to convey.

        My confusion lies in whether or not you would agree that it would be best for those living in the United States to learn English since it is the country’s primary language at this time. Isn’t the disadvantage — a lack of access to what you refer to as the “codes of power” — what we would like to remove while at the same time encouraging further development of the skills of the different home language? I would be the same situation if I (a speaker of only English and Spanish) were to suddenly move to China. But I do not believe it would be fair to label the nation as racist against white English speakers simply because it would be to my advantage to learn Chinese.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am not labeling any nation racist in this post. I am labeling deficit perspectives of low-income communities of color racist. The question of whether nations should have standardized languages is an important question but seems unrelated to that point.

        That said, I have written extensively about the history of nation-state language ideologies and refer you to my academic profile if you are interested in reading more about my thoughts on that:
        https://upenn.academia.edu/NelsonFlores

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  9. This is really brilliant! I work as a teacher in a dual-language school (English/Spanish) and our goal is to make our students, who are mostly English-dominant, white monolinguists, to be bilingual and biliterate. It is a struggle in the early grades to teach students to read and do math and everything, giving equal time to both languages. Our students don’t progress in English reading as quickly as children taught everyday in English, and we recognize this as a process of our dual-language model, but we are still held to the same standardized standards as students learning English the traditional way. Other states, such as California and Texas, recognize this and exempt students who are new-to-country for 3 years and who are in dual-language schools from standardized testing until they are in the 6th grade. Between the 4th and 6th grades, this is when the blossoming happens…when students who have been taught in this manner start to exhibit the true benefits of the model. But giving children TIME to grow and assimilate their learning isn’t part of the current political landscape. Thanks for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment.Your experience is certainly consistent with research on dual language education that illustrates slower earlier growth in English than English-Only approaches but then large gains starting in late elementary school that lead to these students outperforming their English-Only counterparts by middle school on English standardized assessments. Unfortunately, as you note, testing policies can sometimes conflict with the research.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for this piece. It was the most brilliant depiction of the problems with a “deficit” model approach to education policy making that I’ve seen to date.

    Like

  11. arianareads said:

    This is great, thank you for writing it! I’m a former youth worker, current health care researcher, and mama to a white 10-month-old learning English and Spanish–and this expresses the critique I have of these programs but haven’t been able to articulate.

    Like

  12. radelman2007 said:

    Hot damn! Glad to have stumbled here this morning!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Reblogged this on Rhymus and commented:
    If you leave the pancake on the griddle without flipping, then one side burns.

    Like

  14. Satire is so hard for people. Maybe if you talked about satire-lacking rich children more people might have gotten your point…which, if I understand correctly, was that the “language gap” is an indication of big differences between families. Those differences are observable in many ways, including children’s time with parents; personal energy, rest, & rejuvenation; health & nutrition; financial resources & secure housing; cultural/ethnic, literary, & linguistic experiences; and quality education — differences that can’t be “equalized” simply by programming parents to talk more to their children — and shouldn’t be thought of on a good-bad spectrum. Is that more or less the gist of your message?

    Like

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