A national think tank, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), just issued a hefty report documenting the diversity within our state’s growing multilingual student population. MPI demonstrates that Minnesota differs significantly from other U.S. states with respect to language.
As in many states, the number of multilingual learners in Minnesota has grown sharply: up by 77 percent from 2000 to 2015. As in other U.S. states, the most widely spoken non-English language is Spanish. However, unlike most of the country, thousands of children in our schools who are learning English come from homes with many languages besides Spanish, such as Hmong, Somali, Oromo, Amharic, Swahili, Chinese and Vietnamese.
We are the state not just of many lakes, but of many languages.
While the MPI report emphasizes the need for early childhood education programs to best support young learners, it misses a key point. Multilingualism is a crucial resource for our state — and one that, like our thousands of pristine lakes, we must protect and manage through individual and collective action.
Decades of scientific research demonstrate that multilingualism has multiple cognitive advantages. Bilinguals outperform monolinguals on many measures, including creativity, logical thinking, problem-solving skills and particular brain functions, such as avoiding distracting information. These advantages extend throughout one’s lifetime: For instance, bilinguals show symptoms of Alzheimer’s several years later than monolinguals.
Language is also an economic resource. Proficient bilinguals on average earn $3,000 more per year, even controlling for factors such as education. The Economist reports that for a U.S. graduate, a second language is worth up to $128,000 over the course of a career. As recently highlighted by the World Economic Forum, multilingualism helps grow our collective economy, contributing to our state’s GDP by attracting international investment and high-skilled workers to our region.
Critically, a strong first language lays the groundwork for strong English language skills. One of the best ways to ensure high levels of academic success and healthy social and emotional development among our growing English-language-learning population is by supporting both or all of their languages, the one(s) they speak at home and English. Five decades of research point to the ways in which using students’ native languages in schools, for instance through bilingual literacy and content instruction, leads to academic achievement, school engagement and English language proficiency.
As with our other state assets, we need to manage and cultivate multilingualism so it can thrive and serve our state into the future. In past decades, immigrants and indigenous people were encouraged (or required) to lose their home languages as quickly as possible. The so-called “sink-or-swim” English-only education policy of the past didn’t work then and is even more dangerous and shortsighted in today’s economy, which demands high levels of literacy and skills that allow for lifelong learning.
We need to embrace multilingualism as a goal for all state students, both recent arrivals and longtime residents, by leveraging all of our communities’ resources. In policy and practice, this means creating more opportunities for world language learning and stronger English-as-a-second-language programming that builds on students’ first languages through multilingual instruction.
The good news is we have the know-how to do this: Myriad successful and research-tested educational models and programs exist that allow students to learn language, acquire literacy and master academic content like science simultaneously. More good news: We already have much of the legal policy infrastructure in our state.
Our 2014 education law put into place regulations to support multilingualism in Minnesota. However, this law left many “opt-out” possibilities for individual districts, and it provided no additional funding for already cash-strapped schools. As a new governor and state legislators prepare to take office in 2019, supporting multilingualism as a statewide resource will hopefully be a critical and central part of their forward-looking agenda.
In the meantime, let’s all ask: What languages are used in our community? What native languages were/are spoken in our area? How can we all become closer to our neighbors, both old and new, by learning more about their languages, and maybe even learning to speak a little of them, too? We can all learn to “speak local” and embrace the multilingualism that surrounds us.
Kendall A. King is professor of second language education, University of Minnesota