The U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently laid out his three education priorities for the year:

  • Promote academic excellence
  • Improve conditions for learning for all students and
  • Prepare all students for global competitiveness

During his announcement, Secretary Cardona declared that the United States is one of the few countries that is predominately monolingual (English only), that we as a nation must embrace multilingualism to compete on the global stage, and that English learners need to be viewed from an asset-based perspective. Then, in a speech at the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE), he called for increased funding for multilingual programs and more bilingual and multilingual educators. He also suggested that Title III be moved under the purview of Office of English Language acquisition (OELA) — away from the Elementary and Secondary Education division in the Department.

Overall, Secretary Cardona’s comments on multilingual education are welcome yet long overdue. Here, we provide some historical context, highlight some bright spots in multilingual education, and offer some recommendations for policies and practices that benefit English learners.

Historical Context of Multilingualism

The United States of America was originally developed by indigenous people who spoke languages other than English. Yet, the country’s multilingualism has always been contested. Xenophobia and English-language hegemony has led to the exclusion of many Americans who are bilingual. Overwhelmingly, English assimilation has been the de facto language policy of the United States. And yet, today, almost one-quarter of people in the US speak a language other than English— with about 80% of English learners being Spanish speakers.

The movement to educate bilingually in the U.S. started in the mid-20th century, first in response to the wishes of Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities, and then to the growing immigrant population and a renewed effort to teach them English. Currently, more than half of the English learners are U.S. native born — contrary to some political discourse about mass immigration. But today’s needs for global communication, propelled by technology and witnessing the ease in which world speakers communicate in multiple languages, highlights the importance of bilingual education. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “English Only” approaches is being abandoned as the science of development and learning has established multilingualism as an asset — linguistically, cognitively, and academically. With that in mind, English learners should be treated as an important resource for the country.


Bright Spots in Multilingual Education

There are some positive things happening around multilingual education across the US. Below are some examples:

  • Developing asset-oriented and needs-responsive approaches are vital. Recently, California has addressed their previous English Only policies by adopting the California English Learner Roadmap, which first acknowledges that past statewide efforts did not function under an asset-oriented strategy. This roadmap also includes a Seal of Biliteracy — a gold seal that appears on the transcript or diploma of the graduating senior and is a statement of accomplishment for future employers and college admissions. Currently, 49 states and Washington DC have approved a statewide Seal of Biliteracy, exemplifying the importance of viewing multilingualism as a national and international asset — individually and collectively.
  • Dual-language (DL) programs have proven to be successful. In the San Francisco School District, most of their DL programs offer instruction in Spanish and English, but are also offered in Korean, Chinese, and Tagalog. These efforts have three goals: to help children to learn English; to help children become competent in their own language without sacrificing their own success in school; and to promote linguistic and ethnic equity among the children, bridging gaps between cultures and languages. And Utah created funding for its schools to begin Dual Language Immersion programs in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, French, and German — which enroll over 30,000 students today.
  • Preparing multilingual educators is also key. For example, San Diego State University’s Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education has successfully prepared high-quality bilingual teachers for over 30 years through a rigorous teacher prep program that serves the needs of local school districts. The goal is not only language proficiency but also cross-cultural understanding to better serve English learners.


Recommendations for Multilingual Education 

While there are many aspects and approaches to multilingual education, here are six recommendations below:

  1. Adopt bi/multilingual language policy at federal and state levels
  2. Move from using the term English Learners to bi/multilingual learners to reflect a more asset-based approach
  3. Return Title III to Office of English Language Acquisition and designate that unit as the Office of Multilingual Education
  4. Prioritize through policy safeguards for low-income, urban and rural English learners, especially Spanish-speaking students, in the design, development, and implementation of existing and new dual-language schools and other high quality bi/multilingual programs
  5. Adequately fund and support high quality bi/multilingual programs, including pre-K programs
  6. Adequately fund and support the preparation of high quality bi/multilingual educators via multiple teacher pathways


One cautionary note regarding dual-language programs that Guadalupe Valdes and other scholars predicted many years ago has come to fruition: The original target of bilingual programs used to be low-income urban and rural communities with a high percentage of English learners — especially Spanish speakers. But nowadays, dual-language programs can usually be found in middle- and upper-class suburban, English-speaking communities. (Note that the same inequities can occur with the Seal of Biliteracy if left unchecked.) But there is a path forward — and by embracing multiculturalism and dedicating resources to English learners, students in the US can carve out a better future for themselves in this ever-increasing global economy.


Co- authors:

    • Ofelia García, Professor Emerita at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) 
    • Eugene García, Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and former U.S. Department of Education Title VII Director