Lost in Translation: Addressing the Need to Expand Opportunities for Multilingual Learners

By Lena Bird

Not everyone reading this will speak Spanish, so I will help you out: Have you thought about what it would be like not to speak English? Imagine sitting through classes in a language you do not know.  Seven hours a day, five days a week, the prospects of your future resting on your ability to grasp concepts from unknown words. This is the harsh reality for Multilingual Learners (MLLs) in US schools: a group that constitutes more than 10% of all US students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). The sad truth is that with the current MLL policies, funding, and support systems, only 57% of these students graduate high school in 4 years or less nationally.

As with anything, movements to increase support for MLL education are met with reluctance by some, opposers typically citing the taxpayer money that would be reallocated or increased in order to support a community that these same people may believe is unworthy of educational funding, a belief often dependent on residency status. Regardless, it is crucial that all students are granted equitable opportunities for educational attainment, and residency status should play no role in the amount of support a student receives. According to the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, MLLs “have unique learning needs, and are disproportionately likely to attend low-resourced schools with high concentrations of [MLLs] and low-income students” but “there is also widespread agreement that some students need more and different resources than others,” (Sugarman, 2021). From this, it is evident that increased funding for MLL programs is not only a want from the MLL community but a necessity we all must aim to effectuate.

I was born in the United States and English is my first language; only two years ago did I begin to learn a second language, Spanish, not out of necessity but out of my own desire to be multilingual. Because I have not experienced first-hand what an MLL feels learning a language out of urgent necessity, I turned to one of my best friends, Odalys, who moved to the United States in middle school speaking only Spanish. Her input truly opened my eyes to the complexity of not only the academic aspect of this issue but more importantly, the emotional aspect. Odalys told me, “Emotionally speaking, it’s definitely frustrating because you feel useless pretty much just because you don’t understand, and that frustration leads you to a lot of insecurities and low self-esteem. You can’t put it into one emotion because it’s worse than that, it’s too deep and dark and scary.” This resonated with me because discrepancies in MLL education truly are a much-overlooked and multifaceted issue that many fail to recognize as more than just students who struggle to speak English.

Nhora Gomez-Saxon, a Spanish for Native Speakers teacher at my high school who has many MLLs in her classes, gave me further input on this same note. She asked, “can you imagine what will happen when we don’t educate all our students,” then reflecting that, “we will have uneducated adults and uneducated leaders.” Schools need more financial support to teach these students because from the perspective of educators, “when they walk into the school, they are our students to teach and our responsibility,” regardless of how much funding the government provides them. It is the responsibility of our representatives to ensure all students, including MLLs, are educated by providing financial support to schools. Not only are individual students harmed by a lack of funding, but schools and teachers are as well.

I tutor and mentor a 5th-grade MLL from Venezuela and have since her first month in the US. I have seen all the ups and downs of her journey: the triumph she feels when she gets a 100 on a math test, but also the frustration she feels when her performance on an assignment is hindered by a lack of support toward her understanding of English.  Furthermore, as a student at a large and diverse public high school, 19.9% of my peers are MLLs and I witness the struggles of these students daily. I do what I can to help when it comes to translating on a case-by-case basis, but mere translations are negligible without the implementation of new and/or expanded programs in schools providing access to education truly catered to the needs of the students receiving it.

The US Department of Education does not have a set curriculum for MLL education, but federal law requires all established programs be 3 things: “(1) based on a sound educational theory; (2) adequately supported so that the program has a realistic chance of success; and (3) periodically evaluated and revised, if necessary,” (US Department of Education, 2020). The aforementioned 57% MLL graduation rate, however, highlights the US educational system’s failure to meet these conditions and the need for change. Furthermore, condition two requires adequate support which signifies a need for funding. How could funding sufficient for only a 57% graduation rate be considered adequate? 

Not only does funding evidently lack, but “sound educational theory” as well. Regarding what strategies should be employed to apply funding to improve MLL education, the Education Development Center suggests three objectives for programming: “Supporting children’s use of their home languages,” “Valuing children’s home cultures,” and “Using specific teaching strategies to help children be successful,” highlighting specific examples of how these can be achieved in their checklist entitled “Supporting Emergent Bilingual Children in Early Learning” (Education Development Center, 2019). Compliance with these objectives is integral in ensuring students not only acquire English proficiency more efficiently but also feel comfortable in their English abilities. In order to make school less “scary” and “frustrating” as Odalys describes it, the support of home language use, cultural respect, and targeted strategies would work wonders in easing the stress of MLLs.

Not only must MLL students receive heightened attention, but their teachers as well. Evidence from a study by Grand Valley State University finds a primary root of the struggles in MLL education from the educator perspective is teachers “encountered challenges in delivering instruction to [MLLs],” finding that the majority of teachers felt they need more training to effectively teach MLLs (Gomez & Diarrasouba, 2014). With teachers wanting additional training; those who are in classrooms witnessing first-hand the needs of both themselves and their students; it is essential that we listen and implement training programs for MLL teachers to feel prepared to effectively educate their students.

In a country with an ever-increasing immigrant population, it is vital that we embrace our diversity and recognize what each unique person brings to the table. This starts with education, and education that applies to all people. School administrators, teachers, parents, peers, and MLL students themselves see the importance of more funding for MLL programming every day. MLL students are full of potential but deprived of the resources necessary for an equitable education. The teachers, parents, educators, and students are the ones in the classrooms supporting, witnessing, and experiencing the struggles; they are the ones we should listen to. Legislators must recognize this and allocate more substantial funding toward MLL education rather than persisting to expect MLL students to meet the same academic standards as their peers with minimal aid. It is critical MLLs are provided equitable opportunities to meet their academic potential, and this goal can only be achieved through the support of the lawmakers who “represent” us.