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Beyond Cognates: Leveraging Multilingual Capital

While English-only approaches to EL instruction are increasingly being questioned across many parts of the US, the legacy that they have left behind is strong. Add this to the fact that English is the “lingua franca” in the United States and across the world, and that it can be difficult for multilingual students to see the value in using and retaining their heritage languages. 

School districts need to be aware of these challenges and be prepared to confront them at all levels - from district policies to day-to-day interactions between teachers and students. When implemented correctly, intentionally designed bilingual strategies and approaches lead to increased awareness of the assets that multilingual students and their families bring to school communities. Just as importantly, they help instill a strong sense of pride in multilingual learners. 

Recently, we caught up with Dr. Sonia Soltero about how teachers, administrators, and policymakers can work together to leverage multilingual capital and create a love for languages in our schools and communities. Dr. Soltero is a fierce advocate for equity in multilingual education and elevating the status of non-English languages in our schools. The conversation was filled with powerful points and opportunities for listeners to critically evaluate their approach to language instruction in their school districts. 

We encourage you to listen to the full conversation below or wherever you get your podcasts, but here are a few key takeaways from our conversation:

Encourage and promote metabilingual awareness in multilingual students.

Metabilingual awareness, a term coined by Dr. Soltero, goes beyond metacognition (thinking about our thinking) and metalinguistics (thinking about language) into thinking about and processing the differences between two or more languages. Students can use this awareness to their advantage. For example, multilingual students constantly manage their two languages in their brains by activating one language and suppressing the other depending on the context. This “mental workout” strengthens multilingual students’ cognitive processing and memory. While this happens automatically, activating metabilingual awareness needs to be taught intentionally and purposefully.

Explicitly teaching aspects related to metabiligual awareness should happen both in pre-planned lessons as well as organically throughout the day as opportunities to make cross-linguistic connections arise. Recognizing that this process is happening helps students develop academic and social language at a deeper level.

Bring cross-linguistic connections to the forefront of instruction.

Comparing and contrasting students' languages in deliberate and intentional ways helps them develop a deeper sense of each language. For example, knowing the differences in syntax between two languages helps students understand and internalize grammar rules in both languages.

These comparisons go beyond cognates, extending to comparisons of prefixes, suffixes, origins of root words, syntax, phonology, and much more. They can also foster a love and appreciation for languages that stays with students throughout their lives and helps protect languages other than English.

Protect time for learning in non-English languages.

Dual language program models are named numerically (50/50, 80/20) – this is because the primary tenet is ensuring a defined language allocation. This creates accountability for the percentage of instruction offered in the language other than English (LOTE) and English. Dr. Soltero advises that school leaders protect the LOTE time to ensure that students have as much academic and social engagement with the LOTE, which is the language most at risk of being displaced. 

The pull of English is strong, and we must recognize this when designing and evaluating language programs. It is important to note that students must have ample and extended opportunities to use and develop their home languages, reach the highest levels of biliteracy possible, and activate their bilingualism in all their dimensions. The ultimate goal is for students to attain the Seal of Biliteracy upon graduation.

For more great insight and information, listen to our entire interview with Dr. Sonia Soltero here or wherever you get your podcasts by searching for Highest Aspirations. During our conversation, she mentioned three books that have had a lasting impact on her:

Dr. Soltero is Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum, and former Director of the Bilingual-Bicultural Education Graduate Program at DePaul University in Chicago. Soltero has numerous publications on bilingual education, English Learners, and Latino Education having been involved with dual/bilingual education for more than thirty years as a dual language teacher, university professor, professional developer, and researcher. Soltero has extensive background in design and implementation of dual language and bilingual programs and has worked with school districts as well as bilingual universities across the US.


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