“English! English! Go back to Mexico. You’re in America!”
Not so long ago, that response, described in an ethnography by University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela, is what Texas schoolchildren could expect for speaking Spanish in the hallways. Punishments and reprimands were common experience for students whose open use of bilingual skills could be perceived as flauting American customs or refusing to assimilate.
Fast forward 20 years. Bilingual skills are not only tolerated; they’re rewarded.
Yes, some of President Trump’s policies seem to be making America less welcoming to refugees, other foreigners and even sometimes non-native English speakers with noticeable accents.
At the same time, policymakers in Texas and elsewhere are acting on research that has suggested the benefits of speaking more than one language range from better ease with multitasking to potentially delaying the onset of dementia. In college and the workforce, the advantages are clear: Multilingual students have improved access to post-secondary education and help-wanted signs across Texas beckon bilingual applicants.
Today, Texas is one of more than 30 states that now offers a “State Seal of Biliteracy.” The commendation recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in one or more languages other than English.
Texas students and their families should consider setting this seal as an academic goal. School counselors should encourage students to seek it. Districts should proudly display the number of qualifying students prominently on their websites.
In today’s competitive workforce, students need every advantage they can get. For too long, the built-in advantage of speaking a different language in the home was squandered. Now, students can cultivate their language knowledge and turn it into fluency in reading, writing and speaking. The seal can open doors by signaling to colleges and potential employers that the applicant’s language skills aren’t just conversational; they’re comprehensive.
An estimated 1 in 5 Americans speak a language other than English in their home. Even under current anti-immigration policies, that number is not likely to go down significantly. Businesses and schools need a way to communicate with non-English speakers.
Employers posted more than three times more jobs for Chinese speakers in 2015 than they had just five years earlier, according to a report by the New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of mayors and business leaders that supports immigration reform. During the same time period, the number of U.S. job ads listing Spanish and Arabic as a desired skill increased by roughly 150 percent, according to the report.