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The Importance of Our Language Choices

The way we talk to students matters. The way we talk about students also matters.

If there was a fly on the wall of your classroom walls or your teachers’ lounge, what would it observe? What would it overhear? Yes, we all have those moments that we need to vent- but our words can provide an insight into our beliefs, our mindsets, and our thoughts.

Would there be patterns in your language choices? Would there be patterns of your teammates and colleagues? Do those patterns suggest anything to you?

I wanted to check myself. I wanted to tune into the language choices that I made during specific meetings that I had with colleagues with whom I work. Knowing that I couldn’t very well monitor my language choices for an entire day, so I gave myself permission to identify a few spaces in my day where I could really channel in and focus on the language choices I made.

One thing that came out of my observations and my intentional self-monitoring was the phrase “my students” - I used to call students “my students.” It rubbed me the wrong way, and I have since switched to the phrase “the students that I serve.” It feels much more comfortable to me and reminds me of my purpose. It also made me aware of how I refer to teammates, colleagues, and community members.

Another language choice that I decided to make was the term “parents,” and I used this whenever I was referring to the grown-up(s) that were caretakers and/or guardians. I started to consider the word “grown-ups” and also the word “family” as a replacement for the word “parents.” Both terms feel more inclusive, as many of the students we serve are in foster care, are being cared for by a family member other than a parent, and a whole slew of other scenarios.

As an educator who serves multilingual students, families, and communities, I have become hyper-aware of deficit-based language choices that have permeated our field, especially when referring to multilingual learners. When I first became an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language, as it was called at the time) in the state of Illinois, we classified students as NEPs, or Non-English Proficient. This term is dripping in deficit-based thinking- the very first word we describe to highlight a student’s educational identity is non, as in, NOT: This student cannot…..

The state of Illinois today now refers to students with a linguistically diverse background as a multilingual learner. This term is much more favorable, as it speaks to the assets that the student possesses! I love that it is inclusive of the number of languages that our students have and does not assume there are two (as in bilingual).

When we speak about the students we serve, are we considering their gifts, assets, talents, and passions? Are we highlighting their abilities? Many times, we only gather around the (virtual) table to talk about students when a problem arises. During these types of meetings, there is an opportunity for all of us to monitor our language choices. We have the chance to actively lead the conversation in such a way where we consider assets and seek out solutions.

A common phrase I’ll hear as I talk to educators across the country is “They’re low in both languages,” when referring to a multilingual student. I find this problematic for several reasons. First, calling a student “low” doesn’t sit well in my heart. Numbers can be high or low, but a human being cannot. The students we serve are not numbers. Secondly, if a student is developing two sets of language skills simultaneously, let’s acknowledge and appreciate that. Instead of declaring that a student is “low in both languages,” let’s instead highlight what’s occurring: The student is developing in two languages. Finally, there is a lot that goes into language acquisition and language development. I can be at varying levels of proficiency, but I cannot be low in the language itself. I can be at the beginning stages of speaking, listening, reading, or writing- but I cannot be low.

As we take our own language choices into consideration, we can reflect on what we say and why we say it. We can examine our beliefs, acknowledge our biases, and grow. If we notice patterns in the language choices of our colleagues and teammates, call it out at the beginning of your next solution-seeking meeting. Let everyone know what some problematic, yet common words/phrases may be in your system, offer a few alternatives, and hold everyone accountable for utilizing them during the meeting. In fact, print them out and frame the alternatives so that they have a sense of permanence in your space.

The same goes for the language choices that we make when we discuss the families that we serve. How many times have you heard families referred to as “those families?” How many times have you heard particular families referred to as “not being involved?” The term involved is interesting. What does an “involved family” mean to you? Make a list of things you would consider an “involved family” to do, and have a teammate or two do the same. Now compare lists. Are they similar? Why or why not?

I often ask rooms of educators to define family involvement. Many will list things like attending parent-teacher conferences or volunteering as a PTA Parent. Let’s pause for a moment and think about what privileges a family member must have in order to do those things. Seriously. To attend a parent-teacher conference, for example- a person would need transportation, that specific time available on that specific day, possibly childcare, and language access (either have the language skills needed to participate meaningfully in the meeting or have access to an interpreter). To be a PTA Parent, one would need time, transportation, childcare, language access, familiarity with the school and community- and many times they’d additionally need access to even more resources like community & business contacts, networking skills, literacy skills, access to technology, and more. Hmm. That makes me wonder who most often receives that praise of being an “involved family” and who most often does not- all based on our socially constructed understanding of a term.

Every word out of our mouths is a choice that we make. As a white educator who serves linguistically and culturally diverse students, families, and communities, I must constantly check and recheck my language choices. I must constantly check and recheck my privileges and my biases. I must continue to grow personally and professionally.

The way we talk to students matters- yes, of course.

The way we talk about students matters, too.

Carly Spina

Carly Spina has 15 years of experience in Multilingual Education, including her current role as a district EL/Bilingual/Dual Language Instructional Coach for 8 schools (EC-8th grade) in the Chicago suburbs. She is passionate about equity and advocacy for linguistically diverse students, families, and communities. Spina enjoys connecting with passionate educators across the country.

Carly Spina is currently working on her first book for EduMatch Publishing, tentatively titled Beyond Visuals: Innovative Supports for Multilingual Learners, which is anticipated to be published in 2021. The book will include the exploration of the following ideas as it relates to multilingual learners: SEL, academic supports, family engagement, educator self-care, and more.

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