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Schools—Not Students—Are Insufficiently Multilingual (Opinion)

To the Editor:

“Multilingual learners” is a popular label for students who speak languages other than English. Others include limited English proficient, English-language learners, and English learners. Once defended as “neutral,” these labels are now understood as defining students by their perceived deficits within an English-dominant context. Practitioners and researchers debate such terminology for grouping students, which affects their access to educational programs (“The Challenge of Growing Dual Language Programs, in Charts,” Sept. 29, 2023).

Labels impact how teachers and institutions view students and how students view themselves. Advocates are reevaluating these descriptors’ relation to raciolinguistic discrimination. Alternative terms, however, feel insufficient. These students have no inherent characteristic that necessitates labeling, rather it is the institution that is unsuitable to serve them. Because the curriculum was not originally designed for them, it produces the need for additional services. Given the evidence that multilingual education benefits all students, we ask who benefits and is harmed when students are labeled and tracked based on English language proficiency rather than modifying structures to serve all students. Schools and systems, not students, are insufficiently multilingual.

Yet remedying educational harm requires unifying, precise language. If labels must be used in the meantime, they should be asset-based, equity-minded, intentional, specific to their purpose, and descriptive. Before coining the next label, make space for students to reclaim their language identities by asking how they wish to be called.

We advocate shifting language proficiency descriptions from individuals to institutions. Describing a school as an “emerging multilingual school” allows teachers to work within a new frame toward institutional language justice. This positions students learning English within a schoolwide multilingual vision.

These goals are provisional. Schools must reflect students’ multilingualism. For decades, multilingual education has survived oppressive, English-only, anti-immigrant policies obscured by incrementalist critics. Language justice extends beyond labels to collective action, transforming societal attitudes and systems.

Samantha Harris
Educator and Researcher of Language Learning and Teaching
Santa Barbara, Calif.

Owen Silverman Andrews
Instructional Specialist, English-language Learning
Baltimore, Md.

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