Opinion

No Kansas child should be left monolingual

November 17, 2021 3:33 am

Considering the increasing diversity of Kansas, writes Rachel Showstack, more infrastructure is needed to support the development of the state’s multilingual children. (Amanda Mills/CDC)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Rachel Showstack is associate professor of Spanish at Wichita State university and founder of Alce su voz, an organization that supports health equity for Spanish speakers in Kansas. You can read the following column in Spanish here.

When Wichita experienced a water emergency in early October, public officials disseminated a boil water advisory announcement in English and then later leaned on city employees (not professional translators or public information officers) to add information in Spanish, as an afterthought.

In a true emergency, this process could have led to serious health problems or even death for people without access to the initial English-language announcement. This situation demonstrates the need to infuse Kansas public service with a strong workforce of professionals with skills in multiple languages, and the process should start with schoolchildren.

Considering the more than 20,000 children in Kansas public schools who speak Spanish as a first language, the strong presence of speakers of Vietnamese, Arabic, German, Chinese languages and African languages, and concentrated pockets of other languages in specific regions, public education in Kansas does relatively little to support the maintenance of languages other than English and the development of students’ skills in them. The Kansas public school system could make the development of such a biliterate workforce feasible by expanding language course offerings and offering appropriate courses for its diverse student body.

Young children who speak languages other than English at home, called emergent bilinguals, should be provided with the opportunity to develop literacy skills in their home language. However, the majority of these students do not see their languages represented in their elementary education. There are a few dual language immersion programs, like Wichita’s Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet, which offer some classes taught in English and others in an additional language, and there are a growing number of heritage language courses designed for students to formally study a language they learned at home.

However, considering the increasing diversity of the state, more infrastructure is needed to support the development of the state’s multilingual children.

At a minimum, the state should support the creation of additional dual language immersion programs for the most commonly spoken languages, provide professional development for teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) on how to support students’ development of skills in their family language in addition to English, and offer teacher education programs on bilingual education and heritage language teaching at the major state universities.

Scholarship in teaching English to speakers of other languages and bilingual education demonstrates that maintenance of children’s family language supports their English language development and general academic achievement.

– Rachel Showstack

A national recognition called the Seal of Biliteracy is awarded to students who achieve proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in English and an additional language by high school graduation. Kansas public schools are beginning to offer that recognition to students. However, without improved educational opportunities for disadvantaged students from families that speak a language other than English, the Seal may be difficult for these students to attain.

Students who indicate on a home language survey that they speak a language other than English at home are generally placed in ESOL if a screening shows that their English is not strong enough to succeed in regular classes. Meanwhile, these students are expected to use only English in school until middle school or high school, when they can take world language courses.

Those who oppose programs that support the development of students’ home languages believe students need to focus on English in order to succeed. 

But scholarship in teaching English to speakers of other languages and bilingual education demonstrates that maintenance of children’s family language supports their English language development and general academic achievement.

Some parents and teachers may assume that emergent bilinguals will develop skills in their family language at home. As a parent of a child who learned Spanish before she learned English and has participated in English-medium schooling since preschool, I know that it is not easy for second-generation speakers to maintain their family language, especially in a state dominated by monolingual ideologies. Furthermore, reading and writing skills are not learned through conversation with one’s family members.

Meanwhile, students in the Kansas public school system who grow up speaking only English at home and are not exposed to another language in kindergarten or elementary school miss the opportunity to learn a second language as a child, which can be much easier than learning one as a teenager.

KSDE’s motto is “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student,” but how can Kansas lead the world if students aren’t speaking languages other than English? No Kansan should be left monolingual, and there is no reason why the state cannot ensure the majority of its students attain intermediate-level literacy skills in two or more languages.

Kansans interested in supporting multilingual education in our public schools should attend local board meetings. They should also write to KSDE to advocate for increased opportunities for dual language and heritage language education and increased language course offerings at the elementary school level.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Rachel Showstack
Rachel Showstack

Dr. Rachel Showstack is associate professor of Spanish at Wichita State university and founder of Alce su voz, an organization that supports health equity for Spanish speakers in Kansas. Her research on Spanish in the United States, language learning and teaching, and language in healthcare has been published in various scholarly journals and edited volumes. At WSU, she teaches Spanish language and linguistics courses and directs the Spanish Division.

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