Is Monolingualism a Disadvantage? Not if you’re White

In my most recent blog post I flipped the script and asked the question: What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color? Many people responded that there was a kernel of truth in my satirical argument about the disadvantages of monolingualism and that this disadvantage was true regardless of the racial background of the students. This argument makes two suppositions: (1) that monolingualism is a disadvantage and (2) that race is not a factor in creating this disadvantage.

I find both of these suppositions problematic. To call monolingualism a disadvantage implies that monolingualism is somehow a barrier to success. Yet, many of the most successful members of US society are unapologetically monolingual. To argue that race is not a factor implies that monolingualism is treated the same when it is a White person vs. a person of color. This obscures the working of raciolinguistic ideologies that celebrate monolingualism in White communities while pathologizing it in communities of color.

To unpack these claims let me introduce to you to four fictional elementary school students: Tom, Cindy Antonio and Jasmine. Tom and Cindy both come from English-speaking households and identify as monolingual English speakers, though Tom is White and Cindy is Black. Antonio just moved to the United States from Mexico and is a monolingual Spanish speaker. Jasmine comes from a bilingual household and is bilingual in English and Spanish. For the above suppositions to be true Jasmine, coming from a bilingual household, should have the biggest advantage with all of the monolingual children being equally disadvantaged. Yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tom has all of the advantages in the world. He comes to school speaking the same variety of English as his teacher. All of his classroom instruction is in this variety of English. He is also assessed using this variety of English. His teacher appreciates the richness of his vocabulary and identifies him as one of the strongest students in the class and recommends him for accelerated learning opportunities.

Let’s contrast this experience with Jasmine. Jasmine receives instruction in only one of the languages that she knows and her bilingualism is seen as a barrier to learning. Her teacher is especially concerned by the fact that Jasmine sometimes says words in Spanish when being assessed to determine her reading level. This mixing of languages places her far below grade level and her teacher recommends her for remedial support.

Though this is a fictional case, the contrast between the two is consistent with the ways that monolingualism is privileged over bilingualism in US schools. So while I understand the reflex to argue that monolingualism is a disadvantage in order to advocate for bilingualism, to do so erases the material benefits of monolingualism in US society. White middle class English speakers like Tom are not oppressed for being monolingual in the US. Instead, their monolingualism is part of their privilege.

It is the monolingualism of people of color that is often a disadvantage. In the case of Antonio this disadvantage comes from the fact that he is monolingual in the wrong language. Unlike Tom, when Antonio enters school he receives all of his instruction in a language that he doesn’t understand. He is also assessed in a language that he doesn’t understand. He begins to fall behind in his academic work and in addition to his ESL class he is also recommended for remedial support.

In the case of Cindy this disadvantage comes from the fact that she often uses the wrong variety of English. Like Tom she receives instruction in a language that she knows. Unlike Tom, she is often reprimanded by the teacher for speaking “improper English.” When assessed she often loses points for “mispronouncing” words. Her poor performance on these assessments leads the teacher to recommend her for remedial support.

Cases like Antonio are familiar to those of us who advocate for bilingualism. Indeed, we might be tempted to use this case as an example precisely for why we should argue for the advantage of bilingualism over monolingualism. Cases like Cindy may be less familiar to us. Yet, I believe it is crucial that we consider these cases. The language practices of many monolingual Black children are already described using deficit frames. Nonchalantly arguing that monolingualism is a disadvantage at best confirms and at worse exacerbates this deficit frame.

A more productive approach toward advocacy for bilingualism should begin from the premise that all children, whether they come from monolingual, bilingual or multilingual homes, are socialized into complex language practices that could and should be built upon in schools. This stance must be paired with a strident critique of the racial hierarchies of US society that produce deficit perspectives of students of color. Students like Tom will have their language practices built upon by teachers for the simple fact that they are White middle class children. Students like Jasmine, Antonio and Cindy often do not have their language practices built upon by teachers for the simple fact that they are low-income students of color. Race matters when advocating for bilingualism and must be front and center if we truly want a world where all language practices are affirmed.

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