Preserving linguistic diversity in public schools: school districts must take action to preserve native language fluency

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readSep 8, 2023

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Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan (PPS ‘25)

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan (PPS ‘25)

It’s a busy Thursday evening at El Puente Hispano, a Concord, NC nonprofit that provides after-school instruction for local Hispanic students. The coordinator welcomes me with a “bienvenidos” as I enter the small basement of a church, a make-shift classroom for the students that rely on the organization for support every week. As I sit down to prepare my lesson for the second graders, they scurry in, greeting me with an enthusiastic “hola!”

As they start talking about their day, I couldn’t help but overhear a few words from their conversation: “odia,” “porque no hablo inglés,” “tonta.” Despite my mediocre Spanish at the time, I could tell from their voices that these words did not have a positive connotation. “What happened?” I asked. “Our dumb teacher hates us,” one of the boys responded. The others giggled and waited for my reaction, since “dumb” was a swear word in their book. “Why would she hate you?” I asked. “She wants us to speak only English,” he said, “pero I like Spanish better.” As he said this, the call of “necesitamos empezar!” (“we need to start”) came from the other room. The children began working on their homework, leaving me to my thoughts. I was shaken. Language fluency, whether in English or Spanish, should be celebrated, not suppressed. I carried on with the lesson, but this issue stuck in my mind.

Many of the kind students I taught at El Puente were termed “newcomers” in education: children who are new arrivals to the country with limited fluency in English. These students often struggle in school, as they must learn to navigate societal differences in addition to the language barrier. They may also face struggles at home where family situations are often unstable. These students’ passion for learning, despite the harsh circumstances they face, is unparalleled. Many of these students are enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs at their schools as they start establishing fluency in English.

Unfortunately, many of these ESL programs focus solely on intensive English instruction rather than maintaining the newcomer’s fluency in his/her native language. This faulty method, often called the “submersion” or “sink or swim” method can have an array of short- and long-term effects. ESL students who receive solely direct English instruction often struggle to keep up with the material being covered, lowering self-confidence. Additionally, this can cause a decrease of fluency in the child’s native language, which leads to the loss of a key element of their culture.

The best solution is creating an environment where students are encouraged to use English in conjunction with their native language. This can be accomplished through maintenance (MBE) bilingual education methods. These methods have been researched to help ease the home-school transition, allow students to learn the background knowledge needed for academic work, and preserve students’ native language fluency. MBE methods include a curriculum that aims to include equal amounts of native language and English use. This allows for the enhancing of native language proficiency while developing English fluency. Studies have shown that this allows students to graduate with academic and professional literacy in both languages, while emphasizing biculturalism. As Kathy Escamilla described it, this method “views language as a resource rather than a problem” and underscores the value of language, whether that is English or the native language.

These bilingual education methods assist in developing linguistic diversity in public schools and exposing students to a variety of cultures and backgrounds, effectively developing global mindedness, an essential skill in the 21st century.

Public schools should take action to implement maintenance bilingual education programs to create a better experience for newcomers, like the students I taught at El Puente. As students who have faced a significant amount of difficulty already, it is crucial that their education system support multilingualism and foster an environment where they feel empowered to express themselves in their native languages.

This topic, one of preserving linguistic diversity, is also highly personal to me. As a first-generation American myself, I understand the struggle of having to learn and speak in multiple languages simultaneously. Fortunately, my family reinforced my fluency in Tamil at home, while exposing me to the English world through literature and the community. Our educational system should treasure the linguistic diversity that these students bring to the classroom and encourage all students to embrace and celebrate the linguistic diversity that exists within their school’s communities.

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan is from Concord, NC and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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