Foreign Language Assistance Program on the chopping block: a major threat to K-12 language instruction in the US

» 12 March 2011 » 3 Comments

The following is reprinted from the Asia Society website:

On Saturday, February 19, the House of Representatives passed HR1, the FY 2011 continuing budget resolution, which cuts funding for the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP). FLAP is funded at $26.9 million and is the only source of federal education funding for K-12 foreign language innovation and best practices. On March 4th, the Senate Democratic Leadership introduced their version of a 7-month Continuing Resolution (CR) which would not cut FLAP, but would maintain it at the current levels.

Please call or email your Senators and urge them to support the continuation of funding for the Foreign Language Assistance Program in 2011 and to oppose any resolution or budget proposal that would eliminate the funding of FLAP programs.


Read on for more information from the Asia Society.

In an effort to prevent government shut down, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a proposal, HR 1, which contains $100 billion in cuts from the President’s FY 2011 budget request. To reach that number the House cut billions through eliminations, reductions, and rescissions, including the elimination of the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) within the Department of Education.

FLAP is the only source of federal education funding for K-12 foreign language innovation and best practices. The $26.9 million in funding are being used to develop programs in critical languages to help support our economic and national security interests and prepare our graduates to compete in the 21st century. The US Department of Education awards, on average, between 25-35 FLAP grants each year to local education agencies and state education agencies.

Last Friday, March 4th, the Senate Democratic Leadership introduced their version of a seven-month Continuing Resolution which would maintain FLAP funding at the current levels. In contrast, the House-passed CR would cut $51 billion more than the Senate measure, with the vast majority of House cuts coming from non-defense spending. The Senate will vote on HR 1—the House proposal and the Democratic alternative, on Tuesday March 8th. Although neither is expected to get the 60 votes needed to advance, the votes will set the parameters for the upcoming budget negotiations and determine the final level for FLAP funding this year.


Need for Increased World Language Programs

Only 25 percent of elementary schools in the United States offered any world languages in 2008, down from 31 percent in 1997. American secondary schools offer more opportunities yet involvement is still low; currently, only half of all American high school students take even one year of a world language. Like many other academic advantages, language-learning opportunities are less available in urban schools than in suburban or private schools. For the past fifty years, school language choices have remained for the most part the same commonly taught European languages. Many FLAP grants aim to change this, focusing on programs that provide students the opportunity to learn a critical need foreign language such as Mandarin or Arabic.

The American language-education offerings contrast markedly with those of other countries where learning a second language is a higher priority. Twenty out of twenty-five industrialized countries start teaching world languages in grades K-5 and twenty-one of the thirty-one countries in the European Union require nine years of language study. It is not surprising that a 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences warned, “The pervasive lack of knowledge of foreign cultures and languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.”
To find out more about FLAP grants and where they have been awarded, please see:


Presentation by Shuhan Wang, Finding Solutions: Reforming World Language Teacher Supply System. STARTALK 2009 Teacher Certification Summit. December 2009. Accessed:
National Academy of Sciences, Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. (2007) Available:


Discussion Question
What can we do to help save the FLAP program?





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José and Maria: A Story of Courage

» 07 March 2011 » 8 Comments

Lydia Breiseth is Manager of Colorín Colorado, a bilingual website serving parents and educators of English language learners based at public broadcasting station WETA in Washington, DC.  The following is a guest post inspired by her conversations with SIT filmmaker Ken Schneider and some of the subjects from Speaking In Tongues.

by Lydia Breiseth

We recently had the opportunity to interview Ken Schneider, co-director of Speaking in Tongues, for the bilingual English language learner (ELL) website Colorín Colorado. Ken provided a great behind-the-scenes glimpse of the film’s production process, as well as some thoughtful insight on attitudes towards dual-language education around the country.

One of the words that Ken used has stuck with me as I think about ELLs who enroll in dual-language programs: courage. Courage, he says, is what enabled José and Maria Patiño, a humble couple with little education, to put their son Jason in a two-way Spanish immersion program rather than send him to school in an English-only environment. In the film, José notes that it would be difficult for him and Maria if their son lost his Spanish as the lines of communication would be broken – but that’s not their only motivation in enrolling him in a dual-immersion program. Maria expresses her hopes her son will be “better prepared when he is older, to find a better job and have twice as many opportunities because he speaks two languages.”

For most families like the Patiños, the overwhelming pressure to learn English is communicated in the schools and by the mainstream media. We meet a Latino father in the film who believes that his daughter is speaking too much Spanish at her dual-language program; his impassioned plea at a parent meeting for his daughter to learn more English underscores the desire that so many immigrant parents share to see their children succeed in the U.S. It also underscores the limited access that parents have to information about the benefits of building strong language and literacy skills in the first language, and the many kinds of benefits (academic, social, emotional, and cultural) of effective dual-language programs.

For the families that don’t have access to that information when high-quality dual-language programs are offered in their school district , questions arise about which language to use at home. Sometimes Spanish-speaking parents stop reading to their children since they can’t read aloud in English. Parents may see their native language as an obstacle rather than an asset, sacrificing the family’s communication in the name of their child’s success and thus creating a rift as the child grows older and speaks less Spanish.

This is an important part of the conversation that Speaking in Tongues has inspired: What does it mean for our ELLs to succeed? Does it mean fluency in English, even if it’s at the expense of the native language (as we see in the case of Kelly’s parents)? Or does it mean giving our children the chance to become fully bi-literate and bilingual? While many of their counterparts understandably choose the former, the Patiños chose the latter. So far Jason’s prospects for a future with “twice as many opportunities” – and one in which his parents can play an active part – look bright. When the film was released in 2009, Jason was testing well-above grade level in English and Spanish, and he has identified the college he plans to attend.

José and Maria are parents whose courage we can learn from as we look to our rapidly-changing student population around the country. We need Jason to succeed, and we need José and Maria to be there alongside him every step of the way.

Special thanks to Dr. Karen Ford from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Giselle Lundy-Ponce from the American Federation of Teachers for their contributions to this post.

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A Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism

» 01 February 2011 » 22 Comments

Good day faithful readers and newcomers, too.  I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like lately because I’ve been working behind the scenes to make connections so that this blog remains meaningful and reaches more people.  To that end, I am pleased to host this month’s blogging carnival on bilingualism!

If you’ve never heard of (been to?) a blogging carnival, allow me to explain.  It’s sort of a curated post compiled of teasers and intros to the posts of other bloggers writing on a topic related to that of the host blog.  In this case, all of the featured bloggers are parents of bilingual children.  Their kids have become bilingual (and in several cases trilingual and beyond!) in a variety of languages and due to a variety of circumstances.  Each of their posts are interesting, entertaining or useful, and they speak to the joys and challenges of raising kids in multilingual and multicultural environments.

Many thanks to Letizia Quaranta of Bilingual for Fun for establishing this carnival and for all the work she does to help make multilingualism a reality for younger generations!

Now, on to the carnival!

Tamara of Non-native Bilingualism, who is raising her daughter in German in the U.S., shares an idea with us that is not specifically language-related but which she hopes will make a difference in her daughter’s future as a global citizen with A Very Very Un-birthday in the Making.

Corey at Multilingual Living has offered 9 Ways to Keep Language Learning Going. These tips to keep language learning casual and fun have even inspired my family to follow her lead and start learning Spanish together!

Jan at Babelkid has a humorous story about his children’s code-switching in a song I will henceforth remember  as “Incy Wincy Ankaboot.” He also has a lovely “Family Language Diagram” visually showing  who speaks what to whom in their quadrilingual (!) family.

“Solnushka” of Verbosity writes about her realization that when a toddler begins trying out new vocabulary in one of his two home languages it becomes very clear which parent he is imitating in On Ps and Qs.

Sarah at Bringing up Baby Bilingual writes on the evaporation of her non-native OPOL insecurities as she looks forward to baby number two in On Second Languages and Second Babies.

Santi of Trilingual writes about her persistence in sharing her native Indonesian (both speaking and literacy) with her kids who have always gone to school in French while also learning the local language (which has been Dutch, German and now English!) in Indonesian Literacy in a French and English Environment: Doable and Fun!

At Mummy do That! we get to share a mother’s delight when her heretofore English-insistent daughter marches into a friend’s home and starts speaking German like a native in Language Leaps.

Lalou of Laloulah, who blogs about raising her sons in French and German in Australia, writes about how her boys’ enthusiasm for French after attending one-day of French school derailed their commitment to speak only German in the morning in Just Your Typical Day.

Maria of Polyglot Tots, who has three trilingual children of her own, writes about sharing Spanish, English, and French with the two toddlers who come to her for daycare in her Polyglot Tots Experiment Update.

Rea from Not So Spanish imagines the musings of her Spanish husband and their bilingual two-year-old regarding the couple’s search for a name (traditional Spanish versus “hippy nature thing”) for their second child in Dancing with Dump Trucks.

Smashed Pea of Intrepidly Bilingual shares her frustrations over her daughter’s determination to keep her younger brother from speaking German–at least in front of Mom–in English it is. Again.

Mama Poekie at Authentic Parenting gives a very helpful review of several French children’s books in her post French Books for Toddlers, and Marjorie Coughlan of Paper Tigers weighs the pros and cons of bilingual books (for which this site is an incredible resource!) in Bilingual Children’s Books – Good or Bad? And by the way, I have reviewed many multicultural childrens’ and young adult books for this not-for-profit site dedicated to multicultural children’s literature.

Finally, my good friend Beth Weise of the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council writes about her first-ever experience making glutinous rice balls for the Chinese New Year festival at her daughters’ (and my sons’) school in Glutinous Rice Balls at 7 AM. It’s a timely post as that time of year is upon us once again. With the new moon on February 2, we usher in The Year of the Rabbit, 4079. Xin nian kuai le, and happy reading!

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Great new blog on bilingualism on Psychology Today site

» 02 December 2010 » 2 Comments

Psychology Today magazine is now hosting a great blog on bilingualism called “Life as a Bilingual” by the well known expert, Professor François Grosjean. Grosjean is also the author of the new book, Bilingual, Life and Reality, which has been nominated for the Edward Sapir Book Prize 2010, as well as several other important references on bilingualism and is, himself, bilingual in French and English.  Recent topics include myths about bilingualism, dormant bilingualism, and the appropriate way to define bilingualism.  Grosjean’s style in the blog is informed and accessible, not overly scholarly. It is wonderful to have Prof. Grosjean’s lifetime of living and studying bilingualism as a resource for us all!

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Thai prime minister stresses importance of multilingual education at UN conference

» 17 November 2010 » 1 Comment

Last week, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, opened the International Conference on Language, Education, and the Millennium Development Goals in Bangkok with an address that emphasized the importance of multilingual education, particularly mother-tongue based education in which children from ethno-linguistic minorities are instructed first in their primary language, or, “mother-tongue.”

Research has shown that children from marginalized linguistic minorities perform better academically and, in fact, acquire the national language more quickly and thoroughly when their mother-tongue is used to build a language bridge in the early years of instruction.  While this research seems to be at cross-purposes with the aims of immersion education for English-speaking children in the United States, it is important to note that mother-tongue-based educational programs are typically situated in developing countries where speakers of minority languages tend to be disadvantaged in the mainstream education system.  Students coming from minority language backgrounds in the United States likewise benefit from early instruction in their primary language while those students whose mother tongue is the national language fare well in second-language immersion programs as their mother-tongue is supported at home and in society at large.

Vejjijava’s remarks have been slightly edited in the post below.  They can be found in their entirety here.

Two months ago, I attended the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which was held in conjunction with the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals. It was heartening  to see the world’s leaders come together to support our shared goals, and more importantly, to note the measurable progress they have already made toward achieving many of our objectives.  However, despite the positive progress reported by many countries – Thailand included – there are still millions of people we have yet to reach. These include our poorest and most vulnerable populations, and those living in the remotest areas of the world. We have an obligation to ensure that the fruits of our development efforts are both widespread and equitable, so that everyone can benefit from them, regardless of wealth, background or geography.

A matter of particular concern in this respect is that progress among the world’s ethno-linguistic minorities continues to lag behind some of the successes we’ve seen in majority populations. This puts our minorities at greater risk of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and disease, and increases the likelihood of future tension and conflict. It is their minority languages, among other factors, that have put them at disadvantage. UN agencies thus believe that we must embrace minority languages whenever possible in order to meet our MDGs, particularly with respect to universal primary education, gender equality, maternal health, child mortality, HIV/AIDS awareness, and the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. We cannot be content with satisfactory MDG progress on the national level. Rather, leaders must make the extra effort to ensure that all social groups within a country are able to realize the benefits of development. Ethnic languages are not only a powerful tool but also step towards accomplishing our goals. By understanding – and respecting – differences in languages, we can better bridge communication and cultural gaps, and more effectively meet our MDGs through the promotion of mutual understanding, trust and positive relationships.

I believe that Thailand is something of a model in this regard. Our nation is home to 70 unique ethno-linguistic groups – a wealth of diversity that I personally consider to be one of our national treasures.  Recognizing the different linguistic and cultural backgrounds among our people, the Thai government has worked hard to protect and promote these cultural diversities. Nowhere is this more evident than in school, where curriculum now includes the study of local languages.

Let me emphasize here that education has always been one of my government’s top priorities. The measures we have taken to widen educational opportunities range from offering financial assistance to families with school children to ensuring that all Thai students have access to 15 years of free basic education. However, no educational framework can be truly successful unless it accommodates and encourages all children, regardless of backgrounds. A case in point is our work with ethno-linguistic minority communities. In particular, I recently approved the Royal Institute of Thailand’s National Language Policy,[i] which maintains the right of ethnic children to have their mother tongue included in the school curriculum. We firmly believe that the inclusion of local languages in schools helps students improve their academic performance and strengthen their aptitude in the Thai language, while preserving the individual languages and cultures that make us unique. I am also in the process of appointing a cabinet-level, strategic implementation committee to ensure the new Language Policy is put into practice in areas such as education, health care, regional commerce and human security.

In addition, the Thai Ministry of Education has been cooperating with various local and international organizations on programmes that encourage Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education, particularly in our country’s border areas to the north, west and south. Just last month, my Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, led a delegation of foreign ambassadors[ii] to southern Thailand to visit one such programme, which SEAMEO has called a model for Southeast Asia. There, students in pilot schools learn to read and write in their native tongue, Pattani Malay, and then use that as a bridge to the national language of Thai. The children are doing very well – in fact, they are seldom absent, they participate enthusiastically, their self-confidence is growing, and their Thai language abilities are already 35% higher than similar students in monolingual Thai control schools.[iii] In addition to improved language abilities, we’ve also seen increased performance in science, mathematics, and other subjects. However, this project would not have been nearly as successful without the cooperation of parents, teachers, community leaders, religious authorities, and even musicians and artists, working alongside linguists from Mahidol University – not to mention the technical assistance from SIL International, financial support from UNICEF and the Thailand Research Fund, and moral support from UNESCO and SEAMEO. We hope to expand this approach to other schools throughout Thailand, in order to raise academic performance, foster economic growth and social reconciliation, and continue to work toward the fulfillment of our MDGs.

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The Great Divide Between Federal Education Policy and Our National Need for Bilingual Citizens

» 04 November 2010 » 1 Comment

by Wayne E. Wright
University of Texas at San Antonio

In the United States, there is a great divide at the federal level between education policy and the national need for bilingual citizens. The federal government is painfully aware of its lack of bilingual employees. The National Security Education Program (NSEP) (2001a) in an analysis of federal language needs—conducted the same year as the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—found that difficulty in hiring bilingual candidates at 80 national-security-related federal agencies led to adverse impacts on operations. The NSEP also found unmet language needs in other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Customs Service, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard. We also lack bilingual citizens to fulfill the myriad jobs in the service, business, and education sectors to interact with immigrants, international tourists, and other visitors, and to help ensure American success in international relations and global business.

Later in 2001, at the NSEP National Briefing on Language and National Security, speaker after speaker across federal agencies testified of the urgency to increase the country’s foreign language expertise. Richard Brecht, the Director of the National Foreign Language Center, testified, “the U.S. government’s language capabilities remain grossly inadequate. …. We need more linguists in more languages at higher levels of proficiency than ever before.” He recommended a long-term strategy which included the mandate that “government language schools recruit from the education system and the U.S. heritage communities linguistically competent professionals with existing skills that can be enhanced and specialized to meet required federal tasks.” (p. 20)

Regarding Brecht’s comment on the need to recruit from K-12 schools and from heritage language communities in the United States, Stephanie Van Reigersberg, a former recruiter of interpreters for the State Department, made a telling comment about her frustrations trying to recruit “heritage speakers” in languages of great need. She testified:

I think that as I look back on the last 30 years of testing interpreter candidates, it’s very clear to me that the attempt made in our private and public schools to annihilate any knowledge of the language spoken at home has been very successful, and I think we’ve got to overcome that. (p. 29)

Over a decade later, little progress has been made. Ironically, at a time when these hearings on the need for bilingual citizens were taking place, federal education policy moved in the opposite direction with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2000. Congress eliminated the Bilingual Education Act, and removed the word “bilingual” from the text of federal education law along with all recognitions of the individual and societal values of bilingualism.

While bilingual and other heritage language programs are still allowed, there is no longer any direct federal support or encouragement for these types of programs. Furthermore, NCLB’s focus on high-stakes testing as the sole measure of student achievement, and teacher and school quality, has discouraged schools from offering such programs (Wright, 2007, pp. 1-26). As the vast majority of language minority students are required to take these tests only in English, narrow test-preparation curriculum is focused on both the content and language of the test. When the top priority of schools is raising their average test scores to avoid harsh accountability penalties, school leaders may view heritage language programs as unnecessary and as diverting time and resources away from this goal.

When President Barack Obama was sworn into office in 2009, there was great hope among language minority advocates for change that would create more space for quality heritage language programs. The administration has appeared open and supportive of such programs. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in a May 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, made the following comments:

We also support innovative approaches to language learning and proficiency assessment through our network of Language Resource Centers. Just one example is the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. They sponsored their first international conference on heritage and community languages last February. The millions of heritage language speakers at varying levels of language proficiency in the U.S. represent a tremendous reserve of students and potential teachers who can put their skills to work improving our cultural understanding as well as our ability to compete, collaborate, preserve national security, and advance international peacekeeping efforts.

Statements such as these are a positive sign, as is the apparent support for bilingual education in an early draft of the Obama Administration’s proposals for the re-authorization of NCLB. However, the focus on accountability through high-stakes testing has not only remained, but has gotten worse. A key element of the administration’s school reform efforts through initiatives such as Race to the Top is tying teacher performance evaluation to their students’ test scores, thus making the stakes and the pressure to raise language minority student test scores higher than ever before.

As long as high-stakes tests remain the sole indicator of student achievement and school and teacher quality, there will be little incentive for schools to promote heritage language programs. A multiple-measurement system is needed where test scores are but one factor among many in determining school quality. Such a system could rectify the great divide at the federal level by recognizing and rewarding schools with quality heritage language programs—programs which ensure our nation will have the bilingual citizens it desperately needs.

Dr. Wayne E. Wright is an Associate Professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas, San Antonio and the author of Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice (

A lengthier critique by Dr. Wright on the effects of NCLB and its emphasis on testing for English Language Learners can be found here in the publication Educational Leadership.


Duncan, A. (2010). International Engagement Through Education: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the Council on Foreign Relations Meeting, May 26, 2010. Retrieved from
National Security Education Program. (2001). Analysis of federal language needs. Retrieved March 14, 2006, from
National Security Education Program. (2002). National briefing on language and national security. Retrieved March 14, 2006, from
Wright, W. E. (2007). Heritage language programs in the era of English-only and No Child Left Behind. Heritage Language Journal, 5(1), 1-26.

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Video Extras Offer More Food for Thought About Immersion Education

» 28 October 2010 » 1 Comment

As a writer I know that plenty of what comes out of my pen (or keyboard) never sees the light of day. Sometimes I have to cut entire paragraphs or pages–even ones I really like–simply because they don’t serve the overall purpose of the story or article. In my case these get relegated to a file called “leftovers” and spend purgatory in my computer hoping to be called up another day. Sadly, I don’t think that day has come for any of my leftovers, but I still can’t bear to throw them away.

When people make a film, a similar thing happens, but on a much grander scale. Filmmakers spend hundreds of hours and many more dollars scouting locations, receiving permission, employing a crew, hiring equipment, and setting up lighting and sound gear to shoot many hours of footage, comparatively few minutes of which make it into the final version of their films. Those hours in the editing room letting go of great stuff that just won’t fit or that has to be sacrificed so other points can be made must be much more painful than my cutting and pasting into a ‘leftover’ file because that work represents so much effort and energy from so many people.

Fortunately, we now have the Internet, and some of those great scenes can now be seen and shared. Material that didn’t make the cut or caused the story to stray can now enhance viewers’ experience of the finished product–just like dvd extras do.  Speaking in Tongues filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider have recently posted ten of these video extras on the Speaking in Tongues site.  (Make sure to use the scroll bar on the right of the screen so you can watch them all.)

The extras run the gamut from Mimi Met, Senior Research Associate at the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, discussing the importance of multilingualism in creating a more peaceful world to educator Laura Ringard expanding on the value of bilingualism for enhancing cognitive function. A Mandarin immersion kindergarten class joyfully sings a children’s song with their teacher, and a 3rd grade science class measures and discusses the progress of plants in their garden entirely in Cantonese. The extras also delve into more controversial topics such as the lag in standardized test scores of immersion students who are taught in the target language but tested in English before they have received as much instruction in that language as their monolingual peers. A touching episode on integration and immersion features a Spanish-speaking mother who decides to enroll her daughter in a Mandarin immersion program as well as insight from an African American mother and a school employee about how learning a second language can open new opportunities for children.

I hope you have a look and that these extras help answer some questions that Speaking in Tongues may have raised for you.  Spread the word to family and friends and let us know what you think about these videos in the comment section below.

And just for fun, check out this excellent audio extra in the form of a World in Words podcast from Public Radio International’s The World and Patrick Cox.  Cox devotes about half the show to Speaking in Tongues, interviewing Ken and Marcia as well as their younger son Jaden, who points out that it’s useful for he and his brother to be able to communicate in a language their parents can’t understand.  No doubt that’s true!

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Speaking in Tongues: A Film. A Challenge.

» 06 October 2010 » 1 Comment

The following is a guest blog by Homa S. Tavangar, author of Growing up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World. Look for a review of her book on this blog soon.

With all the talk of “Restoring Honor” and taking back our country, I’ve been thinking a lot about the changes in America that feel so threatening to some. We are living through revolutions in just about every sphere of life. Some revolutions can be terrific. Like the American Revolution. Or the technological revolution that enabled us to throw out our bulky typewriters for increasingly thin, fast and powerful computers. A revolution in learning and human relations needs to accompany the technology shift – and this is where it can get tricky. At a time when national borders mean less and less, and cultures interact on a daily basis, Americans can do better than complete their education as monolinguals with a weak grasp of geography, math, or how to interact across cultural lines.

Among the key skills for success in the 21st Century workforce is fluency in at least a second language. Many disagree with me on this point. Thirty-one U.S. states have passed “English-only” initiatives, in order to not be required to translate official documents and services. School districts (including where I live) have dropped foreign language instruction in elementary school and/or middle school due to budget shortfalls or because the results aren’t demonstrated on standardized tests. Meanwhile, the US Department of Homeland Security is clamoring for Americans fluent in the languages of other countries to aid intelligence work, the Department of Defense is pouring money into language programs, businesses are more likely to hire a bi-lingual candidate when offered a choice, and research (as well as common sense) indicates the younger the learner, the easier it is to acquire an additional language.

Yet, for many Americans, the idea of foreign language immersion falls somewhere between threatening and mysterious. Amidst this backdrop I was delighted to watch the new documentary film Speaking in Tongues, by veteran filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider. The film humanizes the difficulties and triumphs of language learning by following four diverse students and their families. As we get to know the children we see the impact of speaking more than one language, from becoming closer to one’s heritage and the older generation that holds the traditions, to taking opportunities to live and travel abroad, to offering a chance to break out of a cycle of poverty.

The medium of film tells a story that no academic study could convey. I found myself rooting for Durrell, an African-American boy living in public housing who starts Kindergarten immersed in a Chinese classroom. And also for Jason, a Mexican-American boy, whose parents are not literate in any language, but who develops proper Spanish literacy while mastering English. Their determination through substantive lessons in Chinese or Spanish actually serves as their ticket to potential success in mainstream America – and beyond.

The filmmakers are clearly committed to this ideal. “We have seen the amazing transformation through language in our own home. Our sons are in their fourth and eighth year in a Chinese immersion program. They are equally comfortable in both English and Chinese” explains Ms. Jarmel. “As parents and as filmmakers, we wanted to pose the question: ‘In today’s world, is knowing English enough?’ and we invite the film’s audience to consider the answers with us and one another.”

Watching the film helped me better envision what an immersion classroom looks like, how a family can support the intellectual (and at times emotional) challenge their child is taking on, how a global mindset can be developed for a child from any economic condition, and more generally, how language can unite diverse peoples.

Speaking in Tongues is streaming with Spanish or Chinese subtitles on PBS Video (click here to watch it now) and is the first program to be carried in three languages (Spanish, Chinese, English) on the PBS video portal.  The film also has recently been broadcast on PBS and other cable TV stations throughout the United States. Check the film’s website here for schedules. If you don’t find your city on the schedule, call your PBS affiliate and ask for it. The website also offers information if you’d like to host a screening and community discussion, and more resources for language learning and global thinking.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film, and your community’s experience on this issue, whether it’s with children learning a second language through immersion or simply dabbling, or the response to immigrant English language learners. Are you from one of the English-only states? How has this played out in practice? How have school budget pressures impacted programs? If school leaders don’t speak a second language is this affecting the way they decide on programs?

Whatever your experiences with language learning – keep talking! It will translate into a better community, and might even stir a revolution.

Homa Sabet Tavangar is the author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, hailed a “Best New Parenting Book” by Scholastic Parent + Child, and a Best Education Book of the Decade. Between conversations with grandparents, Saturday school, high school courses, and their year-long AFS exchange student “sister,” her three daughters are learning how to order cupcakes in Persian, Spanish, French and Chinese.

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Legislation Stands to Alter the Shape of Multilingual Education

» 30 September 2010 » Comments Off on Legislation Stands to Alter the Shape of Multilingual Education

It’s impossible to bring up any education-related topic without stirring up controversy.  Foreign language instruction in the public schools, whether immersion or another model, is certainly one of the hot-button issues.  Pair this debate with immigration reform, English-as-official-language, and school assessments, and you have a recipe for uproar.  Of course, that’s business as usual for politics, and these are some of the most pressing issues of the day, which is why legislation is popping up all over that could directly affect all of these things.

On the national level, H.R. 6036, or the Excellence and Innovation in Language Learning Act, cites a pervasive lack of foreign language capacity that threatens the security and economic well-being of the United States. Quietly introduced by Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) on August 1, the last day of the 111th Congress, the bill would start language instruction in early childhood and ensure that students are able to build capacity throughout their elementary and secondary education until they gain proficiency.

The legislation proposes the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce pool what they know about language and put together a synopsis of how to meet a variety of language-related needs.

The bill requests $200 million worth of funding each year, a pittance compared to the $2 billion the Committee on Economic Development estimates is lost each year by American businesses as a direct result of lacking cross-cultural skills. The military costs in Afghanistan total $200 million each day, and $200 million is nothing compared to the loss of human life should there be a serious national security breach due to lack of language capacity.

“I hope this bill will be considered as part of the reauthorization of ESEA,” said Tony Jackson, vice president at Asia Society.

The Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA) is a Congressional statute that provides federal funding for American elementary and secondary schools. Originally enacted in 1965, ESEA is reauthorized every five years. Congress is currently preparing the next reauthorization, expected in 2011. You can take action here in support of H.R. 6036.

And U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D, Calif. writes recently on The Hill’s Congress Blog, in support of HR 3753, the PRIDE Act (Providing Resouces to Improve Dual-language Education), currently in committee along with H.R. 6036.

Chu, a co-sponsor of the bill, is  a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, which is reviewing both bills, and serves on the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.  The daughter of Chinese immigrants and the first Chinese American woman to serve in the United States Congress, she also plans to introduce yet another language bill called the Global Languages Early Education (GLEE) Act in the near future to focus funds on early education, which studies conclude is the best path to fluency.

In California, SB 930, (Ducheny), which awaits the governor’s signature, would provide for the scores of English language learners who take the California Standards Test (STAR test) in their primary language to be included in their school’s progress assessment.

Presently students may take the test in their primary language, but the scores in that language (usually Spanish) are not included at all in the accountability system known as  API, a school’s Academic Performance Index or in the calculation of AYP, the measure of schools’ Adequate Yearly Progress, as assessed in accordance with the No Child Left Behind law.

Former English learners who have been reclassified as Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP) are not currently permitted to take the assessment in their native language, though it may be their stronger language for testing. In these cases the tests reflect neither an accurate assessment of what the student knows nor of their English language skills since no accommodations are made to control for linguistic complexities that may affect even “former” English language learners in understanding the test questions, nor is the test designed to measure English language acquisition.

A future assessment or accountability system without research-based accommodations to demonstrate validity, reliability and accurate results of what English learners know and can do would continue to provide a flawed system because teachers and schools (especially schools with significant numbers of English learners) must make education decisions based on data that inaccurately measures the academic performance of these students.

The STAR program will be up for reauthorization in 2013 according to California’s education code, and the emphasis on improved academic achievement of all students, including English learners, continues to be a priority of the federal government and thus every state. It is critical that California reauthorize the program with adjustments to its accountability and assessment system so that the scores of English language learners and the APIs and AYPs of entire schools and school districts present an accurate reflection of students’ academic capabilities regardless of language.

You can read more about SB 930 and follow the links to get involved here thanks to our friends at

This is just a smattering of important legislation under consideration right now.  I have made no attempts to be comprehensive in my search for what’s going on, but I’d love to hear about things that may be happening in your city, state, or school district.  Please leave comments below.

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More Languages Spoken Means More Holidays to Celebrate

» 23 September 2010 » 5 Comments

My kids are never ones to miss a party.  When I tried to clean house (and enlist their assistance in putting their dirty laundry in the hamper) on Labor Day they protested that it was a holiday and that, at the very least, kids should get a pass on chores of any kind–especially if their parents were such wet blankets as to not bother to mark the importance of the day beyond sleeping in.

Now that they’re learning Chinese, we have new holidays to celebrate.  The “new” holidays are not optional in our secular, Judeo-Christian-influenced household.  The Moon Festival has become as important as Easter.  Chinese New Year is just a notch below Christmas on the priority level.  But alas, I have a hard enough time remembering to plan for the holidays I grew up with, and my poor children are consistently disappointed with my failure to satisfy their need to observe the Sino-celebrations.

So they’ve started taking matters into their own hands.  When my kindergartener came home with some lovely Moon Festival-inspired art Tuesday afternoon, I was informed that the Moon Festival was the next day and that we would be celebrating it.  His older brother concurred.  I had 24 hours to acquire moon cakes, and we would be having a parade (in which said art would be carried).

When I hadn’t gotten moon cakes by pick-up time on Tuesday, the search was on.  I pedaled our bike, kids on the back, through the Mission looking for a Chinese bakery.  Score.  I locked the bike on the sidewalk and sent the kids in to enquire.  “Ask if they have moon cakes, and do it in Chinese,” I said.  Moments later my older son came out.

“They DO have moon cakes, but it’s only a really big one, not just two like you wanted.”

“And did you ask in Chinese?” I asked following him in.

“I didn’t have to ask at all, see?” he gestured to a large moon cake display in the center of the room.

They were all packaged, beautifully, in metal tins, four to a box and labeled in Chinese.  Each of these cost between $25 and $30 depending on the flavor of the moon cakes within.  The truth is, I don’t really care for moon cakes, and the last time we got excited about marking the holiday, we overbought and had them sitting around until Christmas.  I had made up my mind that our family of four would share two of them, which is perfect because, cut in half, the moon cake does what it does best: represents the big yellow harvest moon as depicted by a boiled, salted egg yolk buried in the center of the cake.

“We need to find out if we can buy them separately,” I told my son (his little brother was lost in the cake display watching for the cake with the motorcycle to make its way back around).  We approached the counter, and I expected him to ask in Chinese.  No dice.

“We want some moon cakes,” he said to the Asian woman behind the counter who raised a finger and smiled as she walked away to get something.

I realized my son was uncharacteristically nervous because he couldn’t remember how to actually say “moon cake” in Chinese at that moment and I decided to let it slide.  The woman returned and showed us a paper with the different types of moon cakes and their prices listed out–in Chinese.  She began gesturing to it, then laughed. “Oh!” she said smiling and, raising a finger again, walked away.

“She brought us the Chinese price list,” I explained to my son.  “She’s going to come back with the English one.” And in a sudden display of bravado, my son calls out to her “I can read Chinese!”  This, I think to myself, is a stretch, but you go, boy!

Fortunately, this was not the moment to put his bilingual literacy to the test.  She returned with the English price list, and I noted that several of the cakes were listed with an individual price next to the full-tin price. “So,” I asked, “can you buy just one or two of these?”  She looked at me a little blankly and made an effort to answer–in Spanish.

Normally I would not shrink from such a challenge.  My Spanish is OK, and if I had to communicate with her in this circumstance I would have done it, but it seemed silly given that I had a four-foot Chinese interpreter to my left.

“Do you speak Mandarin?” I asked.

“Mandarin OK.  Cantonese OK,” she replied.

“All right Isaiah,  you need to handle this.”

In a couple of minutes I was paying for the moon cakes–two of them, mixed fruit and nut flavor.  “Your son speak very good Chinese,” the woman told me.

“Thank you,” I said, “Xie-xie.”

After dinner the kids waited for the moon to rise over the supermarket across the street.  We all went out on the stoop, the kids in pajamas, to eat our moon cakes (not bad–I prefer this flavor to the traditional bean paste) and mark the change from summer to fall while taking a moment to marvel at the fullness and beauty of the moon.

I never knew what I was missing growing up with only one set of holidays.  How do those of you in bilingual/bicultural homes mark the extra holidays in your lives?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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