How Good Are We at Promoting Linguistic and Intellectual Diversity in the Classroom?

Language is intimately tied to culture and diversity in the classroom. Immigrants initially tried to keep their homeland culture alive in their youth by creating language schools. Today, difficulties in speaking, reading, and writing English continue to serve as barriers to education in American schools.

While some students new to the United States have studied English to some degree in their home countries, the majority has not. As immigrant families enroll their children in American schools, language is one of the first issues addressed. Provisions in the 2001 legislation of No Child Left Behind require that all federally funded schools must help students who are learning English as a second language (ESL) to develop English proficiency, because those students are required to meet the same state and local achievement standards met by students for whom English is the primary language.

Regulations concerning the language barrier are not new. The ruling in Lau v. Nichols (1974) stipulated that students must be taught subjects in their primary language until they can effectively learn in English. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 required that students with a home language other than English be taught in the regular classroom with English-speaking students and English-speaking teachers. While speaking another language is certainly not a handicap or disability, it can be an impediment to receiving a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE and receiving an education in the least restrictive environment can be applied to all types of diversity.

The United States has never declared an official language, despite repeated congressional efforts to the contrary. Thirty states have declared English the official language, but no federal laws stipulate a national language. English is clearly the language of the majority, but a number of other languages are regularly spoken as well. A 2008 study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that 80.3% of the American population (older than the age of 5) spoke English as a home language. The remaining 19.7% spoke other languages at home. Of those, 60.2% spoke Spanish, 4.4% Chinese, 2.7% Tagalog, 2.4% French, 2.2% Vietnamese, 2% German, and the remaining 26.1% of the non-English speaking population spoke a variety of 32 other languages at home. The majority of the population that speaks a language other than English at home was concentrated in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

These statistics underscore serious challenges for teachers as they attempt to accommodate the growing percentage of the population speaking languages other than English at home. More than 300 languages are currently spoken in the United States.

The statistics indicate that the majority of the second-language population is concentrated on the coasts and in large urban areas. But as the immigrant population grows, immigrant residential trends will change too. Jobs in rural areas and small cities are attracting overwhelming numbers of immigrants because of the lower cost of living in these areas. Unfortunately, long-term residents of these areas often share traditional, dominant cultural perspectives, and are often resistant to accepting and incorporating the influx of immigrants into their everyday life. As a result, fear and misunderstanding of immigrants felt in the broader community influence the local school climate. In these circumstances, schools must address both cultural and language issues to ensure a welcoming and accepting school climate.

Do you think we are making enough effort to consider the needs of our non-native English speakers in the classroom? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts—just leave a comment below.

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