Valuing funds of knowledge and translanguaging in emergent bilingual students

My parents came to the US from the Philippines in the late 1960s with just two suitcases each. Already fluent in English, they held a whole lot of hope for the opportunity ahead in their new homeland.

My siblings and I were all born in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. (That’s me in the picture above, third from the right in the second row.) Asian representation has usually been evidenced by comic strip characters such as Corporal Yo from Beetle Bailey and Mock Duck from Krazy Kat, or on television by a token, generic character who wore stereotypical Chinese clothes and interchanged the R and L sounds to the tune of canned laughter. If the character was female, she was often presented as a subservient object of male desire during wartime. Meanwhile, in real life, neighbors, classmates, and strangers said things like, “What are you?” and “You speak English so well!” to us, perhaps accompanied by a gesture of slanty eyes. They must not have known that the Philippines is a multilingual country, rich with the influence of indigenous, Spanish, US, and Asian cultures. The native speakers of its more than 165 autochthonous languages also learn English at home and in school. This type of bilingualism on a national level has not been achieved by the United States.

Educators can help students honor their whole experiences and identities by creating a welcoming and inclusive space.

My parents spoke only English to us and Tagalog, one of main languages of the Philippines, with their friends, who became our extended family. Both languages were always present at home. My brother and I recently found the old reel-to-reel audio recordings that my dad made of us, in which our preschool selves are clearly singing and chattering in accented English. I do not speak Tagalog now, but I like to think that I acquired it, as I can understand it quite well. My parents’ conscious decision to raise us in English was as much a part of our assimilation to American life and American English as it was a reaction to the social climate and perspectives of the Vietnam War era, which suppressed the lived experiences of minority groups in US dominant white culture.

My perspectives on my own language development have changed throughout my life. Early on, I felt myself cast as “other,” with the goal of becoming “American.” This came at the cost of my Filipina identity and language. Now I feel I am better able to value my intercultural capital and funds of knowledge that I bring to my experiences.

My hope in sharing these personal experiences is to encourage you to better understand the experience of your students from different language backgrounds so you can provide them with access to multicultural capital and enhance their learning. Educators can help students honor their whole experiences and identities by creating a welcoming and inclusive space. Let’s start at the very beginning: by defining the terminology we use to talk about kids learning English in school.

What are “emergent bilinguals”?

The term “emergent bilinguals” refers to students whose primary or home language is not English. Although the term “English language learners (ELLs)” is widely used in schools and districts across the United States and in education policy, it elevates English while devaluing the language resources and assets these learners bring, as Ofelia García, Jo Anne Kleifgen, and Lorraine Falchi explain in “From English language learners to emergent bilinguals.” It can be worthwhile to consider which term is best to use in your school or district. In this post, I will use the term “emergent bilinguals.”

According to the National Center on Educational Statistics, the population of emergent bilinguals is growing rapidly. Research from the National Education Association projects that by 2025, emergent bilinguals will comprise approximately 25% of the US public school student population. Approximately 70% of that 25% will be Spanish speakers. In educational contexts, the emergent bilingual or ELL classification triggers any number of educational decisions that determine a student’s curricular path and can change depending on different factors: standardized test scores; performance on growth measures and English language proficiency assessments; or type of program, such as dual language, English forward, or immersion. What makes emergent bilinguals particularly unique is that they have experience with first, second, and, in some cases, multiple languages. How we learn a language in infancy differs greatly from how we learn one later in life, and emergent bilingual students have special insight into this.

How we acquire a first language

The belief that all humans have the innate capacity for language underlies the theories of first language acquisition. First language acquisition is the process of acquiring a primary language through constant exposure to and interaction in the language from birth. A baby in an English-speaking home may utter “Mama” or “Dada” as a first word, for example, and soon after say things like “Hi” and “Uh-oh” because of repeated exposure in relevant contexts.

First language acquisition involves subconscious processes. That baby is not aware that they are acquiring their primary language; their primary language “happens” to them. As they grow older, they pass through different stages of speech and language development, combining words into phrases and, eventually, complete sentences while also adopting appropriate cultural-specific behaviors during speech events (imagine that same child saying “Bye-bye!” accompanied by a flapping open and shut of their small hand to wave).

How we learn a second language in school

Second language learning, on the other hand, involves more conscious processes and usually requires explicit instruction, especially when learning after puberty. This is the age that students in the US typically start foreign language study as well. When I was in middle school, I started learning Spanish. I recall translating English sentences word-for-word into Spanish in my head before opening my mouth to speak in class. I remember reciting verb conjugations aloud and memorizing grammar rules, then feverishly trying to make sure all my sentences were correct on quizzes and tests.

In US world language programs, we usually study a second language the way we study other school subjects: we learn about rules and patterns, and we apply knowledge we already have (in this case, our first language) to help make meaning and communicate in the second language. Unlike when we learn our first language, we use general problem-solving skills to negotiate second language information by searching for patterns, and we rely heavily on memorization, from vocabulary to rules. Our second language learning tends to revolve around studying about the features of the language and piecing together that knowledge to communicate. Very little of typical classroom second language teaching in the US tends to follow natural first language acquisition patterns.

What about bilingual language acquisition?

Bilingual language acquisition takes place when a child acquires two languages at the same time, starting from birth. In Bilingual first language acquisition, Annick De Houwer explains that the child is, in essence, acquiring two first languages. This happens often in multilingual homes. For example, I have a friend who speaks Spanish, and his partner speaks Farsi. When they had their daughter, Katayoon, my friend spoke to her in Spanish, and his partner spoke to her in Farsi. Through interactions and constant exposure to the primary languages of her parents and extended family members, Katayoon acquired Farsi and Spanish simultaneously as her first languages through the automatic and subconscious processes of first language acquisition that I described earlier. Katayoon’s acquisition of Farsi and Spanish was a case of simultaneous bilingualism, in which she acquired both languages at the same time.

The term ‘emergent bilinguals’ refers to students whose primary or home language is not English.

Katayoon also learned English through exposure to her parents’ talk and increased exposure outside of the home through caretakers and, later, in school and her community. Katayoon’s English is likely a case of sequential bilingualism, in which she acquired her two native languages first and then learned English as a second language. This is worth noting because the emergent bilinguals in your classroom have all acquired a native language that is not English, and in some cases may have acquired more than one.

Why understanding the differences in how we learn a language matters

A modern view of second language learning tries to mimic first language acquisition by providing learners with immersive experiences in the hopes that the second language will “happen” automatically and naturally, the way their first language did. This was what I did when I taught Spanish. I always spoke to my students in Spanish, adjusting my speech with carefully selected cognates, simpler sentences, and intonation. Eventually, students caught on and were able to form their own phrases, then longer sentences, and so on.

Many emergent bilinguals will have this more immersive experience in school and encounter English in every subject matter they study. This experience differs greatly from the way many of us studied world languages in middle and high school. For the emergent bilingual, then, every classroom becomes an opportunity for language learning, and all content areas are potential venues for advancing language proficiency, fostering native and second language skills, and enhancing academic growth.

But like English speakers in world language classes, emergent bilinguals come to school with the knowledge and world view of their home culture or cultures. They have a toolbox for language development and a bank of knowledge and resources at their disposal. Think of a time when you have traveled to a place where you do not speak the language. What strategies did you use to communicate? Did you think, “In English, the name for this object is ____, so maybe the name in this language is similar?” Or perhaps you looked at a written word in the foreign language and thought, “That word looks a lot like the English word ____.” These strategies are examples of how we use resources based on our native language(s) to negotiate meaning in a new language.  Think of how these strategies can apply to the students in your classroom.

The call, then, is for teachers to recognize and leverage these strengths for linguistic development and content area growth. Two things that can help you are using funds of knowledge and translanguaging.

How to use funds of knowledge and translanguaging to support your students

Thinking back on my own pre-K–12 schooling in the suburban Midwest, I do not recall my teachers ever asking about my cultural and linguistic background. Did they assume that when my parents arrived with their four suitcases they left their culture and language behind, as though they were items they failed to pack? I often wonder if that contributed to my tendency to downplay my background during my schooling. How would my educational experience have differed if value were placed on my funds of knowledge and if I had had exposure and access to content that represented me more? I suspect it could have been qualitatively enhanced if my intercultural capital had been deemed more valuable.

The modern shift toward asset-based education in the context of the emergent bilingual brings the individual’s intercultural capital into sharp focus. This movement focuses on funds of knowledge and translanguaging.

The concept of funds of knowledge as applied to education is attributed to Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez and James Greenberg in the context of US Mexican households. They examined the resources and knowledge that helped this group meet the needs of their everyday lives and to thrive. In the classroom, this translates to asking ourselves, what are the central cultural assets and competencies our emergent bilinguals bring to the educational experience, and how can we maximize this capital to help advance academic growth and progress?

An illustration of children saying the word "Hello" in many different languages.

“Translanguaging” was coined in the 1980s but has only recently gained popularity in bilingual education circles. It is often spoken of alongside funds of knowledge in asset-based perspectives of education. According to Ricardo Otheguy, Ofelia García, and Wallis Reid, it refers to a conglomerate of all the languages speakers of multiple languages use and that function together as one integrated system for communication in any given situation.

Translanguaging returns the power to the speaker and establishes bi- and multilingualism as the norm. As such, it is a political act that elevates and acknowledges the legitimacy of the languages, cultures, and experiences of those who have been historically excluded. In bilingual translanguaging spaces, both languages are always present, and speakers have all the linguistic and cultural resources of their languages available to them. Classrooms that do not take translanguaging into account run the risk of neglecting part of a child’s identity while contributing to inequity.

Here are five basic things you can try to use both funds of knowledge and translanguaging in your classroom:

  1. Get to know your bilingual and multilingual students. Have conversations with students and families about practices in their home and community. Inquire about their backgrounds and experiences to learn more about their perspectives, social contexts, and beliefs, while taking care not to position US perspectives as the “right” ones. Incorporate this information into your lesson plans across content areas to personalize the learning experience. Applying what you learn about your students will value their funds of knowledge and can ultimately help shape their academic growth. Visit the Washington Office of Superintendent Public Instruction website for more ideas on how to tap into funds of knowledge.
  2. Evaluate and select culturally fair and appropriate materials. Once you know more about your students, research and curate materials that accurately and adequately represent their culture and background. Engage in English language teaching and bilingual research groups on social media and share resources. Help create a community of materials-sharing that provides access to items that help your students see themselves in the content they consume.
  3. Be a facilitator for translanguaging. Encourage and create opportunities for active language use and negotiation of meaning in more than one language to help leverage your students’ bi- or multilingualism and intercultural capital for learning. This may mean allowing students to interact and respond in multiple languages and modes, even if you do not speak other languages. Pair students so they can negotiate meaning and explore together, thereby building their language proficiency.
  4. Consider recasting rather than correcting language errors overtly. Suppose a student says, “I did good on that test.” Rather than saying, “That is incorrect in English. We say, ‘I did well,’” consider recasting the correct phrase through a response: “You did do well on the test. How does that make you feel?” Not only does this model the correct form without overt error correction, but the follow-up question also invites the student to interact further in English in a more language-rich way.
  5. Build on what students already know. As members of a community, we all have knowledge about interactions: how to behave and what communications are expected in a particular interaction. Use these scripts and frames as an anchor to teach new information. For example, when returning an overdue library book, there is an existing set of expectations, turn-taking, and language used for the interaction. This framework might include a greeting, an exchange about the book, information about any overdue fines or a request to renew the book, language that completes the transaction, and a goodbye. This framework may differ across cultures, and their scripts and frameworks will differ. Exploring how things are done in a student’s culture and building on their already existing knowledge will increase opportunities for negotiation and language development.

I invite you to continue to engage deeply with your students and enrich your classroom language with intention. Learning more about what emergent bilinguals bring to your classroom, no matter what the subject area, and maximizing funds of knowledge and translanguaging will surely influence their academic growth.

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