Back in 1997 I was a graduate student in Philadelphia finishing a degree for Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL). The study of language acquisition was an important part of the program. My classmates and professors all valued the ability to speak other languages, and therefore, we were shocked and confused when we learned of a proposition on the ballot in California which would institute an English only language policy throughout public schools in the state. I had spent years studying to learn another language, and had found my Spanish to be an asset both personally and professionally.
Proposition 227 which requires all school instruction to be conducted in English did pass. While there are some exceptions made for bilingual programs, I found it disturbing that there actually existed a movement to eliminate the use and learning of other languages. This was particularly perplexing to me since I had just returned from two years of teaching English in Japan through a program sponsored by the Japanese government. The emphasis on internationalization and language learning in Japan was impressive. The Japanese were investing in language learning while it seemed that my own country was trying to prevent the acquisition of other languages.
The United States is increasingly finding itself part of an international economy, and as a result, it seems that more value is finally being given to students learning other languages. In an ever-increasing global world, language skills are an important asset. As a result, there is a new movement in California for schools to begin recognizing students’ biliteracy skills.
The Seal of Biliteracy program is being implemented in 33 school districts throughout California. This statewide program recognizes and honors students who speak English and one or more other language by the time of their graduation. Students who meet the requirements of the program, are awarded the seal on their diploma demonstrating their knowledge of another language.
As the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, stated, “Preparing all students with 21st century language and communication skills is critical for being college and career ready. Thousands of students will graduate this spring that will be well-prepared and ready to contribute to the prosperity of our state and their community because of their proficiency in English and at least one of the many languages spoken in California. These students will be equipped to be leaders in the areas of international trade, the global economy and public services vital to our diverse communities. I encourage all students to become excellent communicators by gaining proficiency in English and learning another world language.”
Both as a Spanish teacher and the mother of trilingual children, I am excited that language skills are finally being given the recognition they deserve. Even more encouraging is that the group, Californians Together, is working to encourage preschool, elementary, and middle school to develop second language skills. I am actively promoting the Seal of Biliteracy, and am excited to see that programs are growing and students are being recognized for their linguistic skills. Glendale Unified is truly leading the way by honoring students who can speak, read, and write Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Russian, and Tagalog.
I am hopeful that the value on biliteracy will continue to grow throughout the nation. Being bilingual has enriched my life, and I am confident that the next generation will find language skills indispensable in our ever-increasing global society.
Editor’s note: Susan was kind enough to share with us a short video she made for her students to promote the Seal of Biliteracy and to spark their interest. We applaud the California school districts who are implementing this recognition and only hope districts in other states will follow suit.