The Netflix show “Emily in Paris” follows a young woman from the Midwest who struggles to adjust to a new culture after a haphazard promotion sends her to France. She got the job despite not speaking French, a highly unlikely scenario in real life.
The plot could have been more believable to me if the character was multilingual because I speak English, Spanish and French. Speaking and writing a second language are skills that US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona frequently touts as a superpower that can breed success in an increasingly global workforce. Encouraging students to become multilingual is one of six focus areas for him, and he is driving a initiative to transform the educational system of the United States.
Such a national focus on promoting bilingualism is unusual, considering that 78% of US residents speak only English.. But it would mean finally encouraging millions of students whose first language is not English to maintain their fluency while learning English. I would also emphasize the idea that native English speakers can expand career opportunities by learning a second language. However, it would also require some radical changes in both attitudes and the curriculum if the dream of producing more bilingual students is to become a reality.
“We must evolve our schools,” Cardona said during a press call earlier this month, adding that the White House is proposing about $125 million in the next budget to support bilingual programs, including expanding the pipeline for teachers. of languages and subsidies to the states for more teaching of foreign languages.
These funding commitments are a good start for ambitious proposals that are quite a departure from what we have seen from previous education secretaries. It has taken too long for educators to see the benefits of multilingualism when so many American students speak a second language at home that could be formally taught alongside English to achieve full proficiency in both languages.
Cardona’s tone is also strikingly different from that of educational leaders in the recent past. For decades, students whose first language is not English have been viewed as a liability and discouraged from using any language other than English in the classroom. Nativists condemned bilingual education as an undermining of American culture.
Such sentiments prompted the passage of Proposition 227 in California in 1998, eliminating bilingual education and requiring public schools to teach students whose first language is not English in English. It was repealed in 2016.
Now, Cardona asks that we consider these students who speak multiple languages as “asset gifted.” Such a shift in perspective is long overdue and comes at a time of growing interest in teaching American students to become proficient in a second language, as evidenced by the popularity of dual language immersion programs. In 2010, there were about 1,000 bilingual programs in US public schools, increasing to more than 3,600 by 2021, according to the American Councils Research Center.
Thanks in large part to dual immersion programs, California leads other states when it comes to foreign language instruction, with more than 57,500 students considered literate in at least two languages in the 2021-22 school year. The state Department of Education has set a goal to enroll half of K-12 students in two or more language proficiency programs by 2030 and 75% by 2040.
Cardona wants the nation to go much further: to the point where all K-12 students are expected to learn to read and write in a second language.
It’s no surprise that Cardona, whose first language is Spanish, raves about the benefits of bilingualism. He says he helped him become Connecticut’s youngest principal and, years later, to his current position overseeing the US education system. It wasn’t easy. Cardona’s Puerto Rican parents spoke his native language at home and he fought to learn English as a kindergarten child.
Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle to helping more students achieve proficiency in a second language is the lack of bilingual teachers, who are considered foreign language instructors and are typically required to obtain bilingual certification. Forty-four states could not fill all of its foreign language teacher vacancies, a 2017 study commissioned by Congress found. Schools across the country have struggled to fill seats in recent years, especially those for teachers of foreign languages.
Under the Global California 2030 initiative, the state has a goal of hiring about 2,000 additional credentialed bilingual language teachers by 2029, which would mean about twice as many what he had in 2019. In addition, the state Department of Education is considering increasing partnerships with programs such as the Migrant Education Mini-Corps Program to expand the pool of bilingual teachers.
Clearly, it will take years to create and staff bilingual programs in all public schools. But multiplying the number of multilingual students as Cardona envisions will require more than just a shift in public opinion about the benefits of bilingualism.
The United States is one of the few countries considered monolingual, compared to most European countries where students begin learning a second language at age 9, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2017, the US Department of Defense sponsored the National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey to determine the status of foreign language instruction in K-12 public schools. He found that only 11 states required the study of a foreign language for graduation.
The fact that most Americans speak only English puts our country at an economic disadvantage and threatens national security if we cannot understand and analyze potential threats like terrorism or contagion. The lack of multilingual speakers in the US has prompted the Department of Defense to partner with eight states to develop bilingual instruction programs. Certainly, English speakers cannot expect to land jobs like the one that brought Emily from Netflix to Paris if they don’t have the requisite language skills. That is a fantasy that only exists in Hollywood.