August 2013
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Joy Kreeft Peyton, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC, USA

When working with students who speak languages other than English, our focus as educators is primarily on their proficiency in and learning of English. Our research base comes from second language acquisition and English learning literature, and our desired outcomes are proficiency in English and successful integration into the target society. This is the foundation of and vision for our work.

While this focus is extremely important, it is possible in this endeavor to focus so much attention on learning of English and integration into the majority culture that we overlook the complex and rich language and cultural backgrounds of the students we work with and the value that their languages and cultures bring to them, our classes, and our communities.

Knowledge about, valuing of, and even development of the heritage languages and cultures of students in our programs is critical to our success as educators and researchers and to the students themselves. While this discussion focuses on the United States, applications can be made to other countries of TESOL members as well. Here I make the following points:

  • There is a wealth of languages and cultures in the United States and the countries in which TESOL members work, in addition to the mainstream language and culture.
  • Our approaches to working with students who speak languages other than English, and societal attitudes toward those languages and cultures, can limit us and our students.
  • A rich array of educational programs and initiatives in our communities focus on developing those languages and cultures.
  • We acknowledge, promote, and expand the strengths of speakers of those languages in our educational endeavor, to everyone’s benefit.

Languages and Cultures in the United States

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2011), more than 55 million Americans (20% of the U.S. population) over the age of 5 speak (or sign) a language other than English at home, and more than 300 languages are spoken (or signed). Some have predicted that by 2025, one third of the students in public schools will speak a language other than English when they enter school. Speakers/signers of these languages include foreign-born immigrants who came to the United States at a young age, U.S.-born children of foreign-born immigrants and their children, refugees and asylees, Native Americans, and deaf individuals (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010, 2011; Valdés, 2005).

The benefits of bilingualism/multilingualism for individuals (in terms of brain functioning, cultural awareness, and participation in a globalized society) and for society overall are well documented (see, for example, discussion in Tucker, 1999). The languages spoken in this country and the individuals who speak them represent a rich resource for the country, our schools and communities, and the individuals who speak them (Brecht & Ingold, 2005; Peyton, Ranard, & McGinnis, 2001).

Approaches to English Language Education

At the same time, in English language programs our focus is almost entirely on English, which takes different forms:

  • We describe students as language minorities, English language learners, second language learners, immigrant L2 learners, limited English proficient, long-term ELLs, LEPs, long-term LEPs, deaf and hard of hearing, and other terms.
  • We focus on immigrant and refugee integration.
  • We discuss issues of importance in education, work, and society without reference to the role that proficiency in languages other than English might play in individuals’ careers and public and private lives.
  • We have limited understanding of the language and cultural experiences that students have outside of our English-focused schools.

This focus can have an impact on students, who may feel discomfort having a visible presence and voice in the classroom and the school. These feelings may arise from teachers and administrators discussions of their educational needs with a sole focus on ELLs’ gaps in English language proficiency and cultural knowledge. These students’ proficiency in and use of their native/heritage languages is often viewed as an impediment to the learning of English and their academic achievement. (For examples, see discussion in Bigelow, 2009; Cummins, 2001, 2005; Duff, 2001).

Programs That Teach Languages Other Than English

Many students in our programs have educational experiences in addition to participation in our programs—in community-based weekend, weeknight, and after-school programs established and run by community members and others. (See, for example, García, Zakharia, & Octu, 2013; and heritage language programs documented in the database of the Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages). The level of participation in these programs varies by language and part of the country, but in them, students develop language proficiency and achieve academically in ways that are not possible in our schools (e.g., reaching proficiency in their languages that allow them to participate in university programs in their countries while they also learn English). We are beginning to recognize the value of these programs in initiatives such as the Seal of Biliteracy, which rewards students for proficiency in more than one language, and in state initiatives that grant language credit for study and proficiency gained outside the school program. At the same time, there is much more we can do.

Actions We Can Take

There a number of ways that program administrators, teachers, and families can value and build on the languages and cultures that students bring. For example, we can

  • learn about students (recognize who they are, with all of their language and cultural knowledge, and build on that);
  • make visible their languages and cultures in the school and classrooms;
  • articulate a vision for the program that states the importance of multilingualism and multiculturalism;
  • identify the challenges—cultural, social, and political dynamics that facilitate or block achievement of the vision;
  • learn about language use and education in our communities that students and their parents participate in;
  • build student identity, confidence, and agency by giving them opportunities to use their languages and cultural knowledge in leadership in the school and community;
  • include students’ languages and cultures in instruction; and
  • collaborate with language programs in the community, to share responsibility for and approaches to educating students.


The more we know about and build on the complex and rich language and cultural knowledge of students, the richer our educational experience and their academic achievement will be. As a language education community, we can undertake this important work together.


Bigelow, M. H. (2009). Social and cultural capital at school: The case of a Somali teenage girl. Low-educated second language and literacy acquisition: Research, policy, and practice. Proceedings of the Second Annual Forum. Richmond, VA: The Literacy Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Brecht, R. D., & Ingold, C. W. (2005). Tapping a national resource: Heritage languages in the United States. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from

Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Cummins, J. (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognizing heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 585–592.

Duff, P. A. (2001). Language, literacy, content, and (pop) culture: Challenges for ESL students in mainstream courses. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne de langue vivantes, 58(1), 103–132.

García, O., Zakharia, Z., & Otcu, B. (2013). Bilingual community education and multilingualism: Beyond heritage languages in a global city. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Peyton, J. K, Ranard, D. A., & McGinnis, S. (2001). Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource. Washington, DC and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Tucker, G. R. (1999). A global perspective on bilingualism and bilingual education. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Detailed language spoken at home and ability to speak English for the population 5 years and older by states: 2006–2008. Washington, DC: American Community Survey. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). Native North American languages spoken at home in the United States and Puerto Rico: 2006–2020. American Community Survey Brief. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Valdés, G. (2005). Bilingualism, heritage language learners, and SLA research: Opportunities lost or seized? The Modern Language Journal, 89, 411–426.

Joy Peyton is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. She has worked with teachers and administrators in K–12 and adult education to develop and implement effective, research-based instructional practices and educational programs for students who speak languages other than English (including deaf students who are proficient in ASL) and is a cofounder of the Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages.

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