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  • Writer's pictureDavid Kauffman

A Rose by Any Other Name: Considering the Term “Emergent Bilingual”

Good point, Juliet. I hope it all works out for you and Romeo. But I say there is a lot in a name. Names and labels matter. We limit the rose’s potential when we call it a weed, making it more likely to be mowed over and neglected.

A bilingual student by any other name would be just as brilliant. But we limit students’ potential when we label them as “lacking English” rather than as “becoming bilingual.”

In 2021, Senator José Menéndez’s Senate Bill 2066 amended the Texas Education Code to use the assets-based term “emergent bilingual” in place of the deficit-based terms “English Learner,” “English Language Learner,” and “Limited English Proficient.” (Watch IDRA fellow Araceli García’s powerful testimony before the Texas Senate Committee on Education.)

In my former district, we changed local policy EHBE a year earlier to formally adopt the term “emergent bilingual” systemwide. (Watch me talk about labels and labeling at an Institute for Learning Forum just after our new policy was adopted in May 2020.)

Why does the term matter? Because “English Learner” and “English Language Learner” and “Limited English Proficient all focus on what students lack, rather than their amazing bilingual potential. Words matter. Students rise or fall to meet the expectations and values their schools communicate to them. Ofelia García, Jo Anne Kleifgen, and Lorraine Falchi (2008) explain in their research review From English Learners to Emergent Bilinguals:

English language learners are in fact emergent bilinguals. That is, through school and through acquiring English, these children become bilingual, able to continue to function in their home language as well as in English, their new language and that of school. When officials and educators ignore the bilingualism that these students can and often must develop through schooling in the United States, they perpetuate inequalities in the education of these children. That is, they discount the home languages and cultural understandings of these children and assume their educational needs are the same as a monolingual child.

Ramón Antonio Martínez (2018) builds on this rationale in his insightful, must-read article “Beyond the English Learner Label: Recognizing the Richness of Bi/Multillingual Students’ Linguistic Repertoires:”

English learner is a label that conceals more than it reveals. It emphasizes what these students supposedly do not know instead of highlighting what they do know. As a category, “English learner” constrains our ability to perceive the many strengths that bi/multilingual students bring to the classroom—strengths on which we might build to support their language and literacy learning. There is something fundamentally wrong with how we see English learners.”

He goes on to argue that thinking of students primarily as English learners leads to four major problems:

  1. “We normalize monolingualism” as the normal form of linguistic development.

  2. “We view English learners as monolithic,” rather than recognizing the tremendous diversity and variation within the group.

  3. “We view English learners as struggling or at risk”—as “problems to be fixed.”

  4. “We fail to see (or treat) English learners as readers or writers.” We provide them with “reductive literacy instruction to help them catch up” rather than encouraging them to draw on their full linguistic repertoires to “do what readers and writers do.”

So it is not just the label, but also how we perceive the strengths and potential of English learners and the richness and effectiveness of the educational opportunities we provide them. The deficit label AND the deficit thinking it reinforces AND the instructional opportunities provided to students all contribute to real harm to students. The “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” theory is not accurate. The words (deficit label), the sticks (deficit thinking), and the stones (ineffective instruction) all hurt.

So why label the students at all? In “To Be or Not to Be EL: An Examination of the Impact of Classifying Students as English Learners” (2016), Ilana M. Umansky acknowledges that “EL classification carries with it important legal implications for the provision of services and treatments.” The label entitles students legally to equity of educational opportunity through bilingual education and sheltered instruction.

However, the label also creates the risk of stigma and discrimination. In a well-designed natural experiment, Umanksy concluded that for students with almost equivalent English proficiency in kindergarten, those labeled as “English learners” achieved significantly lower in math and English language arts in 2nd through 10th grades compared to those not labeled. The label hurt. (However, the negative effect occurred primarily in ESL English immersion settings, not in bilingual / dual language classrooms, again showing the interrelatedness of labels, beliefs, and instruction.)

Guadalupe Valdés offers my favorite solution for managing the need for labels despite their limitations and problems. She refers to students “bureaucratically categorized as English learners.” (Watch this big-brain dialogue between Professor Valdés and Dr. Aída Walqui on the WestEd webinar “What’s in a Name? The Terms We Use to Talk About English Learners, the Theories They Reflect, and Why Labels Matter.”)

Since adopting the term “emergent bilingual,” I have heard many questions and concerns about this term. Some examples:

  • What about multilingual students? Doesn’t “emergent bilingual” ignore the expansive linguistic repertoire of students who speak more than two languages?

  • Aren’t all students in two-way dual language programs “emergent bilingual?” Students who started school speaking only English but who are learning Spanish or another language are also on track to becoming bilingual, and are thus emergent bilingual.

  • “Emergent bilingual,” as compared to just “bilingual” reinforces the linguistic elitism that says there is a threshold that defines being bilingual and that there are gatekeeper tests, like Texas’s TELPAS for students and the BTLPT for teachers, that determine who gets to identify as bilingual. Many bilingual people don’t pass bilingual tests, but they are still functionally and practically bilingual.

I agree with these critiques. “Emergent bilingual” is an imperfect label. It is also problematic just because it is a label, and labeling people into categories leads to overgeneralization, incorrect assumptions, and the obscuring of important differences within the group. But categories and labels are an important part of identifying inequity and pursuing remedies, and “emergent bilingual” is a much better label than what we have used previously.

So here are my own personal guidelines for using the term “emergent bilingual:”

  1. Try to avoid using labels to generalize about students whenever possible. Does the situation require you to talk about “emergent bilinguals” instead of just talking about students? Would the situation allow you to talk specifically about certain students instead of generalizing?

  2. Use the term as a descriptor when possible, such as “students identified as emergent bilingual,” rather than as an object, such as “emergent bilinguals.”

  3. Use empowering terms that showcase students’ strengths and potential. For example, reserve “emergent bilingual” for when you have reason to specifically refer to students bureaucratically identified as such by the State of Texas. Otherwise, highlight students and families as being “bilingual” or “multilingual.”

  4. Never abbreviate “emergent bilingual” as EB, with the possible exception of in graphs where there is no room for the full term. Say the “bilingual” part loudly and proudly, rather than obscuring it as the letter B.

It is important to address the terms we use, but only as triggers for changing beliefs and practices. SB 2066 will be nothing more than window dressing if we don’t also address underlying low expectations and strengthen additive bilingual programs. In fact, if I had to choose, I would prefer a teacher who persists in using the LEP or EL terms but has high expectations for their students in two languages and implements effective dual language or content-based language instruction strategies to one who complains that their emergent bilingual students are low and enforces an “English-only” policy in their classroom.

I would also prefer a gardener who calls their flowers “weeds,” but praises their sweet smell and tends them lovingly to one who calls them “roses” but complains about their thorns and neglects to water them.

Hopefully, we won’t have to choose. Let’s align the words, beliefs, and practices.

P.S. Spoiler Alert! Romeo and Juliet both die at the end.

Thank you for reading. Please comment!

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