Comparative Analysis of a Critical Issue: Emily Chang

This summer, seven of our undergraduate teacher education students and one intrepid faculty member are spending a month in Peru studying the educational system and discussing their own philosophies of education. They are writing and reflecting on their journey, and we are following along! Read on for excerpts and blurbs from Dr. Gibson and the students’ blogs. You can read more on Marquette Meets Peru and check back for updates here.  

Emily Chang

Language signifies power, and some more than others because of its relevance in society.

A contemporary educational issue that exists today is embedded within bilingual education and the value of learning a second language. This issue is a part of the US educational context and there have been various readings and research on this topic that looks deeper into the experiences from students and schools, especially those with a minority background. Bilingual education and dual-immersion language programs serve as a way to promote the acquisition of a second language and can be beneficial for students, but there are also conflicts that arise when not everyone is receiving an equitable type of education. This is especially relevant when it comes to putting together disadvantaged and advantaged groups in the same setting because within the US context, the ones that are still benefiting the most are those that already come in privileged. Language and power are interrelated and affect the relationships between these groups, particularly from the quality of instruction and encouragement they are receiving. It is also one of the many factors that can affect achievement in school for all students as a result from the support of the school administration or from their community (Valdes, 395). It is important to help minority students feel included and involved in the educational process and show them that there is purpose and meaning in the progress they are making.

Although there are cautionary approaches that should be taken towards bilingual and immersion programs, there are positives to this side that benefit both mainstream and minority students. Based on second-language acquisition theories and general interventions to address educational gaps between students, these programs were formed to alter the outcomes and help all students succeed within the school environment (Valdes, 410). Bilingual and immersion programs are based off second language acquisition theories, specifically by Long and Swain. Both had hypotheses that emphasized the importance of language availability to comprehensible input and opportunities for meaningful output with teachers and other students which bilingual and dual-immersion programs promote. Having these opportunities leads to something called, “negotiation for meaning” among students in second language acquisition (Lightbown, 150). This means it forces students to express and form their thoughts in the target language in a way for the native speaker to understand and is useful for task based instructions where there is a common goal for completing that task. By including this within programs, there is a sense of community and encourages collaboration among students despite their differences and their backgrounds. It prevents isolation that minority students may normally feel at other schools and a middle-class environment along with more availability to resources and opportunities (Valdes, 412). It also provides instruction for minority students in their first language and an access to a quality curriculum. Their academic successes show that low achievement is not just found in students from lower SES levels or backgrounds and depends on the type of instruction and support they are receiving (Valdes, 411). With the success of most programs that show the benefits from both mainstream and minority students, there are still aspects of bilingual and immersion program policies that are attempting to address two very different groups in a more equal way rather than equitable way.

The biggest factor is that there is less emphasis on the culture and identity of language-minority students, and just by introducing native language programs will not solve their problems (Valdes, 416). There should be an emphasis given to the quality of instruction and the way the target language of instruction is received by both minority and mainstream students. It should be modified in a way that is comprehensible and sufficient enough to respond to the needs of students who are in their early stages of language acquisition. There are also external factors that affect the interactions among these students as well, especially of intergroup relations and the impact of society on a larger scale outside of the classroom (Valdes, 417). Although students may recognize differences and the discrimination that exists, and they continue to befriend and interact with each other, mainstream students still come in with mixed feelings towards minority students and continue to make them feel different, but in more implicit ways (Valdes, 417). I have experienced and observed this in schools in the US where all students may interact with each other in the classroom, but conform to their own groups, excluding their minority peers for weeknight or weekend plans once out of the classroom or after school. A lot of the times they will not even say hi to each other in the hallways and students will not interact unless they are in the classroom. It is an indirect way of sending a message to these students and is harmful when it comes to realizing they are different in way that is based on their backgrounds and because they are less privileged than their other peers. This is not just relevant in the US but also from my experiences in schools in Peru as well.

At a public school in Cusco, they highlighted the importance of a quality and equitable education that welcomes the diverse needs and backgrounds of its students. Although this was in place, school personnel and even the director did not seem to fully be aware of the sensitivities that students who were different would feel among their other peers. The teacher in one of the classrooms we observed said that all the students were Peruvian except one, who was from Venezuela, and proceeded to point him out which had all the students look at him. Although the students were not unfriendly and the Venezuelan boy seemed used to the response he was getting, it was clear that he knew he was different and that his peers would not see him as one of them, even though everyone spoke the same language. It shows that even though schools may be committed to social justice, a curriculum may appeal more to majority students in subtle ways and goes hand in hand with the relationship between power and identity.

Identity and ethnic group affiliation is important especially among dual-immersion and bilingual programs because there is the mix of majority and minority students learning target languages. Culture and identity influence how students think and affects their willingness or reluctance to act certain ways in school (Lightbown, 66). It is also a key part of the context that students are a part of and the experiences they are having in and out of the classroom, because identity and culture capture the way students interact with the world. In a study done by Norton on immigrant women in Canada, she writes how motivation was not enough to understand their relationships with language learning and the world. “There were social situations in which they were reluctant to speak and these were typically ones in which there was a power imbalance,” (Lightbown, 66). Those experiences limited the chances they had to participate and continue practicing the target language outside the classroom. Identities that are determined on students can impact their performance and the way they learn which can be harmful in a student’s learning process. It could also lead to limited interaction or feelings of powerlessness even though students may not openly show it (Lightbown, 66).

Language signifies power, and some more than others because of its relevance in society. In many areas, especially in Peru, bilingual schools are becoming more common because of the high value there is placed in knowing English. As globalization spreads, learning English becomes a necessity for them and also the opportunity for a better life (Nino-Murcia, 122). Learning English comes more from an instrumental motivation perspective for Peruvians because it is a way for higher social status, better employment opportunities, and power in society. It also makes themselves distinct from everyone else. An eye-opening point in the experiences that students have within bilingual and dual-immersion programs are the expectations that are set for them. For minority students, this is a part of the struggle with identity and background within these settings. In many cases, acquiring English is an expectation for minority students which signifies that there is less emphasis in the encouragement and praise they may receive (Valdes, 417). In turn, their motivation to learn English may be more extrinsic because they are depending on what their parents want and an opportunity for a better future. With less emphasis and focus on how much minority students achieve in their L2 acquisition, it can have a detrimental effect on their learning process. This could be due to the fact that English is universal and more and more people are learning to speak it to gain advantages in life. Meanwhile, majority students are praised and are rewarded for being able to speak a second language like Spanish and people are more easily impressed at their progress because it is less of an expectation to be able to know a second language.

In Peru, I have learned that being bilingual in English and Spanish is highly valued and looked upon because it is signifies a higher SES, while being bilingual in an indigenous language like quechua and Spanish has suffered from discrimination and is not as valued (Nino-Murica, 125). During my observation in the English classes at La Inmaculada, I was able to ask some students what they thought about learning English and many of them gave similar responses. They highlighted that it would help them find better jobs in the future and better opportunities in life. One also mentioned how his parents encouraged him to study abroad in the US for a month which he did, and he explained how much it had helped him understand the importance of learning English even more once he returned back to Peru. At Fe y Alegria in Cusco, we learned that it was a bilingual school but with Spanish and quechua which was incredibly unique to see. The school stressed upon preserving the culture and language since it will always be a part of them. Although students came in embarrassed or hesitant towards their cultural background because Peru’s society looks down towards indigeneity, the school has worked to show students and parents to be proud of their heritage through several cultural celebration days and emphasis on the learning of the language.

In schools in the US and Peru, language shapes the way students see themselves and how students interact with each other. This also leads to a sort of power struggle among identity and language in bilingual and dual-immersion schools as students try to understand their role in the social world. A way to address the issues within bilingual/dual-immersion programs are to start by providing quality instruction in both languages for all students in a way that recognizes their achievement and success within the classroom. But it should also provide an environment where students feel welcomed and celebrate each other’s differences. By actively addressing equal educational opportunity through interventions on the school administrator’s part and committing to the benefits of all students, it can be a start to addressing these issues especially for minority students. By being aware of the implicit hierarchy of power that is present among classmates, there can be a step towards equity and social relations along with the community that they live in. Education is more effective and just when learning is relevant to the world around them and there are culturally relevant teachers who give quality instruction, encourage collaborative learning for both groups of students, and teach students to inquire about the world around them. Language acquisition is a complex process and affects the way we view our own identity, our self-esteem and motivation, and the way we interact with others. As a result, especially among bilingual/dual-immersion programs where there are mixed groups of students, it is important to emphasize meaningful teaching where students are recognized as relevant, contributing citizens in and out of the classroom even thought they may come from an array of backgrounds.

Works Cited

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2017). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercedes Niño. “‘English Is like the Dollar’: Hard Currency Ideology and the Status of English in Peru.” Freshwater Biology, Wiley/Blackwell (10.1111), 1 May 2003, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467–971X.00283.

Valdés, G. (1997). Dual-language immersion programs: A cautionary note concerning the education of language-minority students. Harvard Educational Review, 67(3), 391–429.

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