Bilingualism has cognitive benefits unless you are Latinx

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.

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7 comments
  1. serajeanhernandez said:

    Well said Nelson! I always look forward to reading your blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth D. Peña said:

    Reblogged this on 2 Languages 2 Worlds and commented:
    This popped up on the habla.lab facebook page today and I shared it there, but I thought I’d share it here too.

    GRRRR is of course my first reaction. We’ve talked about this so many times in the past but these myths persist. The one that is currently in vogue is that bilinguals are delayed in both languages (which is basically what this is) but that is not, in fact the case. It depends on the domain and the language being tested (and how it is being tested).

    What we find for bilinguals is that often they show what we term “mixed dominance” that is for one domain (e.g., semantics) an individual child will show dominance in one language (e.g., English)– and that is well within normal limits, but in another domain (grammar) they may show dominance in the other language (e.g., Spanish). If you look at only one language they may look delayed, but if you look at the stronger language in each domain they do not (we developed the Bilingual English Spanish Assessment to derive a language composite based on the strongest performance by domain).

    I think that this happens also when you test groups of bilinguals, average scores are lower than average in each language (AS A GROUP), but if you look at the HIGHER language, individual children are performing well. Actually, they may be performing better because they know MORE (they know the vocabulary and grammar and discourse style of at least TWO languages)== that’s more not less.

    Like

    • Thank you for sharing your important work. I definitely think that assessments that come from a bilingual perspective can go a long in improving instruction for bilingual Latinx students. At the same time I think we also need to challenge the pervasive idea that language assessments (or any assessment for that matter) are objective descriptors of students’ proficiencies. By doing so we can also work toward analyzing students language practices from alternative perspectives and allow us to see the many things that they do with language on a daily basis that cannot be measured in simplistic ways.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elizabeth D. Peña said:

        Agreed– assessments, standardized assessments are fairly gross indicators at best– and many many of them don’t even do the job they are supposed to do–I like my students to develop a healthy disrespect for them–

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Victoria Ward said:

    Come to the UK and take a leaf out of our book. There is something terribly backwards about the USA and its view on certain groups of people!

    Like

    • I agree that the US has a long and ugly history with racism and xenophobia. Are claims that Brexit was prompted by similar racist and xenophobic sentiments overblown?

      Like

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