08/25/2011 05:19 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2011

Valuing Both Breadth and Depth in Language Education

In my last column I suggested that schools often don't see and appreciate the bilingual virtuosity of immigrant youth. They focus instead on what these children lack -- i.e. proficiency in English. I suggested that there are different ways of viewing limitations. These thoughts were inspired by a colleague, Luis Moll, who once joked, during the time in which schools labeled some kids as LEPs ("Limited English Proficient"): "Well, there are LEPs and LTEPs: those who are limited in English, and those who are limited to English."

However, my intention is not simply to invert the equation of giftedness and deficiency. I don't really want to put a "limited" language on anyone.

Children who grow up speaking only English, in its standard form, may develop deep proficiency in the language. They have a set of skills that are important for school success as we now define it in the United States.

Children who have a deep knowledge of a language other than English have skills that are important for communicating with another set of people, and potentially for success in schools in another country.

But kids who move fluidly between languages and dialects as they speak to different people and in a variety of contexts have another set of skills -- one that schools have not generally recognized or valued.

I am calling on schools to value both: both flexibility and deep proficiency; both depth and breadth.

A former student of mine, now an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, Austin, Ramón Martinez, studied sixth grade students' uses of Spanglish in a school in East Los Angeles. He took note of all the ways in which kids combined English and Spanish in everyday conversation. He identified how they used their language forms to communicate subtle shades of meaning and index solidarity, among other things.

Then he talked to the kids. When he asked them about how they mix languages, they first denied that they do so at all. Then he showed them videotapes of times when they deployed Spanglish. They then said things like, "We do it because we don't know the words," effectively labeling their own language skills as deficient.

But Ramón knew that most of the time when kids switched codes, they did know the words in both languages. He showed them evidence on videotape, such as the time when one student referred to a classmate as "la gordita" rather than "the fatty." The students explained, "We do that because it sounds nicer." The kids were then able to articulate additional aesthetic rationale for their code switching. They said, "We do it to change things make it less boring." They came to see that only sometimes did they not know the words.

Now, I am not saying that these kids -- like all kids -- couldn't benefit from deepening their knowledge of the languages they have in their linguistic toolkits. Kids do need support to develop high levels of competency in any language form, and especially in more decontextualized forms of language such as those required for academic essays.

But kids who are proficient only in the kind of language currently valued in schools would benefit from expanding their linguistic repertoires. By this I don't just mean acquiring a second language (though I'd surely love to see our nation really value bilingualism for all). I mean learning how to share their ideas in a variety of forms, not just in academic essays. They could benefit from experiences that encourage them to "change things up," using different forms of language to communicate subtle shades of meaning to different audiences.

The UCLA undergraduates that I teach have achieved success in things that schools value -- otherwise they wouldn't be at UCLA. For the most part, these students have a strong base in standard English, and they can write good academic essays.

But when I require that they not write traditional essays, but instead "translate" their ideas into a variety of forms, registers and styles -- taking into consideration what is the best way to present ideas to different audiences, and for different purposes -- some seem paralyzed. In giving assignments like this, I am valuing a set of skills that they have not been encouraged to develop or display in school.

Many, in the end, do rise to the challenge, and they have produced some fabulous, innovative projects. But to do this they generally draw on skills they have acquired outside of school, like the multi-modal literacies that are demanded for navigating Facebook, YouTube and text messaging. Many also draw on their own informal experiences as language brokers and with shifting between codes and styles in everyday life.

I am suggesting that schools could -- and should -- help all kids to develop high levels of expertise in using language in a variety of forms and formats, genres and styles -- so that they will be effective communicators in the multi-modal and intercultural future that is already here.