Becoming a Multilingual Nation: The Challenge and the Promise

Becoming a Multilingual Nation: The Challenge and the Promise

ETS Senior Vice President Yvette Donado, La Cosecha Conference Keynote


PRINCETON, N.J., Nov. 8, 2013 /PRNewswire-HISPANIC PR WIRE/ — English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. K–12 public school population — more than 5.5 million and representing 11 percent of all such students. Yet lack of resources, quality teaching and bigotry consign many of these students to futures of underachievement and under-productivity, according to Yvette Donado, Senior Vice President at Educational Testing Service (ETS). Donado delivered this message this morning during her keynote speech at the 18th annual La Cosecha conference in Albuquerque, N.M.


At La Cosecha (“harvest,” in Spanish), Donado noted that becoming multilingual, let alone a multilingual nation, is a challenge, as evidenced by our nation’s efforts in that area and the resistance they typically engender. She noted, however, that America must continue to make the effort because the return on investment is incalculable — economically, culturally, socially, politically and in terms of living a rich life.

“Is there any nation more multilingual than the United States?” Donado asked. “According to Census data, of the 291.5 million people age five and above, 60.6 million — one in every five — speaks a language other than English at home. And not just a few languages, but 381 languages, from French Creole, Portuguese, Yiddish, Greek, Serbo-Croatian and Gujarati, to Mon-Khmer, Hmong, Russian, Thai, Navajo and Tagalog.”

“It is not that Americans don’t speak enough languages,” she continued. “The problem is that we are not making use of this incredible resource. As a nation, we do not understand, respect or appreciate this embarrassment of linguistic riches. In fact, we seem to careen between paying lip service to linguistic diversity on the one hand, and promoting `English only’ on the other.”

If America truly valued linguistic diversity, more than 10 percent of the nation’s teachers would be fluent in more than one language, and more would be trained in cultural and linguistic diversity, Donado explained. And far fewer people would insist on “English only” education in our K–12 schools.

Cognitive Dissonance

Donado told attendees at La Cosecha, organized by Dual Language Education of New Mexico, that America has always had a case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to cultural and linguistic diversity: “We salute those who leave their homelands for greater freedom and opportunity here, and then scorn them as a group once they arrive.”

She noted such unabashedly racist incidents such as the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” which played on people’s economic insecurities to halt Chinese immigration and prohibit Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens; the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; and 18th- and 19th-century schools designed to “civilize” children from the Indian nations. It was less about civilizing them than stripping them of their language, customs, beliefs and cultures, she said.

Education and Competitiveness

“Our economic competitiveness depends on immigration to sustain our workforce, given the low native birthrate,” Donado added. “And although education is the lever of success in the skills-driven global economy, we are leaving too many children behind. Success in the global economy all but requires a postsecondary education. Between 1973 and 2008, the share of jobs in our economy requiring a postsecondary education more than doubled, to nearly 60 percent.”

“Education has been fundamentally important in my own life,” she said. “My working-class parents came from Puerto Rico to New York City for opportunity. Neither completed high school, but they made sure that I did, and that I planned for college. They also insisted that I speak Spanish, and that I maintain our Puerto Rican culture so that I would grow up proud of my heritage. I did. And I’m the better for it. Like many of you, I can navigate easily between two cultures, and draw inspiration — and strength — from both.”

Donado outlined many of the research and assessment initiatives at ETS, including creation of the TOEFL® Test in 1964, the TOEIC® Test in 1977, and a new mission-driven research project studying the status of ELL education.

ETS researchers met with experts, teachers, academics, principals and administrators from around the country and found that:

  • ELLs are poorly served.
  • They are often misclassified, put into the wrong level of instruction, branded as slow learners, and receive less attention, resources and effort.
  • Teachers, including those who teach subjects other than English language learning, often lack preparation for diverse classrooms.
  • Teacher professional development with regard to English learners is woefully inadequate.
  • Because test scores often are delayed many months, teachers don’t know the proficiency level of their students until well into the school year.

“The unsettling conclusion is that we are consigning students to futures of underachievement and under-productivity, and their teachers to a lack of fulfillment,” Donado charged. “I submit that it represents a brazen disregard of our moral and civic obligations. The message is that we apply a sliding scale when it comes to valuing children’s lives.”

Cognitive Advantages, Economic Benefits

Donado also addressed the issue of dual-language acquisition and charges that learning more than one language overwhelms and confuses a young child and delays acquisition of English skills.

“In fact, researchers are finding evidence that just the opposite is true — that learning two or more languages from a very early age improves cognitive abilities in such areas as mental flexibility, abstract thinking, and what is known as `working memory,’ a type of short-term memory important for learning and problem solving. There is evidence that dual-language learning does this by developing greater tissue density in the areas of the brain related to language, and by increasing brain activity.”

Donado also described research underway into the economic benefits of multilingualism among ELLs. In collaborative research, ETS’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center and Patricia Gandara of the UCLA Graduate School of Education commissioned a series of papers examining the economic impact of bilingualism and biliteracy. Among their findings is that bilingualism:

  • results in higher earnings for workers in their 20s;
  • is associated in Southern California with decreasing high school dropout rates and increasing occupational status and income; and,
  • among Spanish speakers, is associated with higher rates of college attendance, which contributes to higher earnings later in life.

Next Steps and Strategy

“English language learning programs cannot be viewed as luxuries, extras or nice things to have,” Donado said. “In some parts of the country, more than half of the preschool population comes from non-English-speaking homes.” In Los Angeles County alone, she explained, more than 55 percent of the five-year-olds who entered kindergarten in 2004–2005 were children whose primary home language was not English. And according to Head Start, more than 140 languages were spoken by the families of enrolled children.

“Nor is it just a pedagogical problem,” she continued. “As our nation’s history shows, linguistic diversity is also a political issue, a cultural challenge and a social imperative. It is wonderful that we have this conference. But let’s face it: We are all in the choir. We need to preach to the unenlightened. And that’s much harder.”

“Time and again, research has shown that higher levels of educational attainment are associated with improved health and longevity; individual, family and community stability; and more inclusive, adaptable societies. For the United States in the remainder of the 21st century, the question is simple: What kind of society do WE want to be?”

Donado concluded by quoting a great American visionary:

“Bestow great attention on the Spanish language, and endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future relations with Spain and Spanish America will render that language a valuable acquisition.”

“Who wrote it? Thomas Jefferson, to his nephew in 1787. Jefferson spoke and valued languages. Let us heed his advice, but extend the practice to other languages.”

About ETS
At ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores the TOEFL® and TOEIC ® tests, the GRE ® tests and The Praxis Series™ assessments.

SOURCE Educational Testing Service

Becoming a Multilingual Nation: The Challenge and the Promise