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'English language learners' an untapped bonanza

Donn Esmonde's recent column celebrating the influx of immigrants and refugees to Western New York as a key to revitalization was on the mark. This potential is something I've espoused each time I speak on English language learners (ELLs). In addition to the financial benefits of widening tax bases, opening businesses, and purchasing homes, the cultural and linguistic enrichments these growing populations tender are priceless.

Recently, an Education Week article noted that U.S. students lag far behind in geography, current affairs and other languages: "America's leadership position in the world depends on preparing students to be savvy citizens with the specific competencies needed to compete and cooperate in a global age." The authors propose we "propel U.S. schools out of their time warp" and train 100,000 teachers in international subjects and languages in order to teach native-born U.S. students. I suggest we also take advantage of resources we have sitting right in our classrooms -- our ELLs.

Knowledge of more than one language and cross-cultural understanding are essential for the global economy but too often, references to ELLs in the media and education literature emphasize what students lack rather than the riches they hold: their native language and culture. For many, English is actually a third or fourth language and calling their classes "English as a second language" is a misnomer.

Instead of referring to ELLs as "at risk," or "limited in English" and to their education as a "challenge," "issue" or "dilemma," why not emphasize what they know? Whether they have had formal education or not, ELLs bring a wealth of knowledge about the languages, culture, history and current affairs of their own and other countries. They can contribute immeasurably to the global consciousness of their schools and communities in ways that are yet untapped.

Many school districts struggle to provide cost-effective translating and interpreting services for their increasingly multilingual populace. Why not tap into resources already within their walls? A translating and interpreting curriculum would be just one way of acknowledging the natural gifts ELLs hold, while better preparing them to meet the increasingly rigorous demands of new common core standards and assessments.

Why not foster what we would want for all our students if they are to be well-prepared for the global economy -- a language other than English? Other states have recognized this potential and have developed curricula that recognize the gifts and talents of ELLs. It's time for New York State to follow suit.

Instead of focusing on deficits when we are competing with other nations in the global market, let's celebrate the "ELL bonanza." Let us recognize and value the national treasure that our newest citizens bring with them.

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Tamara Alsace, Ph.D., is director of Multilingual Education for the Buffalo Public Schools.

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