The Case for Multilingualism in Adult Education

July 8th, 2024 | Blogs

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By Alexis Cherewka, Catalina González, Shirley Doan, Dani Scherer, Jamie Harris

Introduction

“Multilingualism is a superpower,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona declared as he highlighted the wide-ranging benefits that learning and knowing multiple languages can bring. Recent U.S. Census data suggest that nearly 1 in every 5 individuals speak a language other than English at home, and that this number has been growing (Dietrich & Hernandez, 2022). The U.S. has always had a rich history of multilingualism in spite of restrictive policies fueled by the xenophobia of English-only movements and repression-oriented policies that aspired to oppress languages and cultures (Crawford, 2000; Gogolin, 1997; Wiley & García, 2016). The consequences of such policies still reverberate through U.S. communities. Now is the time to learn from the multilingual advocates and researchers who have long called for recognition of the values of multilingualism, and adult education can play a key role in making this happen. In adult education services, adult multilingual learners strengthen their English language skills, advance in their career pathways, and enhance their civic participation. 

Researchers have long advocated for the benefits of bilingualism, including academic, cognitive, economic, sociocultural benefits (see Office of English Language Acquisition fact sheet), and the fostering of preserving languages among generations. Bilingual and multilingualism can support deeper empathy and understanding of other cultures (Rajalakshmi, 2024), mitigate the wage-gap for those receiving lower incomes (Churkina et al., 2023) and are associated with enhanced cognitive functioning skills like problem solving (Deardorff, 2014) and protecting against cognitive decline (Kroll & Dussias). Furthermore, for adolescents, language proficiency in family languages corresponds with academic benefits and can support family relationships (Boutakidis et al., 2011; Liu et al., 2009). Despite these benefits, persistent myths about multilingualism plague adult education programs. The purpose of this blog post is to dispel these myths, highlight the benefits of a multilingual approach, and share resources for adult educators to expand their use of a multilingual approach to providing adult education services. 

4 Common Myths about Multilingualism in Adult Education

Myth #1: Using preferred languages in adult education services detracts from developing English language proficiency.

Educators may have a concern that time spent in other languages will detract from English language development. However, as some adult educators have discovered as they have navigated differing perspectives in research and policies (Vanek et al., 2018), the opposite is true. For adult multilingual learners, building native language literacy and proficiency can even enhance English language development (Condelli et. al., 2009). For multilingual adults who have emerging literacy, a community of purpose that integrates English language speaking and listening instruction and native language literacy skills can support persistence and retention (Lukes, 2011). Adult educators can design curricula and lesson plans that draw on the benefits of multilingualism by intentionally incorporating space for multilingual learners to determine which language they would like to use and when. For example, at the Cartwright School District family literacy program in Phoenix, Arizona, parents discussed their experiences in the family literacy program in Spanish and English, allowing them to debrief their time in English language instruction and other programmatic activities and thus enhancing their experiences as multilingual language learners (Cherewka et al., 2024). 

Myth #2: Using preferred languages is impossible and unfair when there are adults who speak multiple languages in one adult education program.

Educators have shared concerns about how to be inclusive of the diverse linguistic backgrounds present in their classrooms. Fortunately, there are several instructional and program design strategies that can support individuals with multiple languages within the same space. Several of these strategies can be found in resources such as Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB Guide for Educators from Celic and Seltzer (2013) and the Enhancing Access for Refugees and New Americans (EARN) spotlight on multilingual approaches (Cherewka, 2023). For example, as highlighted in the EARN spotlight, the English Empowerment Center in Northern Virginia invites graduates to become class aids and recruits bilingual volunteers.

Myth #3: English language proficiency is necessary to support adult multilingual learners in building digital skills.

Multilingual learners should not be excluded from opportunities to build digital skills. Language learning is a long process, and multilingual learners’ languages and literacies can also support their digital skill development – regardless of their English proficiency. As discovered in the federal Digital Resiliency in the American Workforce initiative (2022), there is a need for more bilingual resources. That said, EdTech tools such as Northstar Digital Literacy and Cell-Ed offer digital skills modules in Spanish, and the Digital Skills Library includes learning materials in various languages to support digital skill development. Adult educators can make use of these and other similar programs within their curricula. They can also consider enlisting multilingual volunteers and program alumni to serve as multilingual support in classes, removing the language barrier that might prevent multilingual learners from focusing on digital skill development. Adult educators can also collaborate with other immigrant serving organizations to support multilingual learners in accessing programming such as through collaborating with digital navigators (Digital US Coalition) to ensure language access for all adult learners.

Myth #4: Multilingualism cannot support adult multilingual learners in achieving their economic goals.

In fact, multilingual career pathways are expanding rapidly (New American Economy, 2017). According to a survey from Language Testing International (2019), 56% of employers predicted continued growth in the next 5 years, and many employers reported a gap in language skills within their businesses or loss of business due to lack of foreign language skills. Job search website Indeed (2024) reports higher wages for bilinguals in the business and hospitality sectors, and bilingual healthcare professionals, educators, and government employees are also in high demand. For adult education providers, career navigators can play an important role in connecting multilingual learners with bilingual career pathways. Career navigation services and community engagement with multilingual community members, employers, and workforce development partners can support multilingual learners in connecting with these career pathways (Scherer & Stadd, 2023). As highlighted in the EARN spotlight, at the Literacy Council of Tyler in Texas, the entrepreneurship Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education programs integrates business planning in English with supplemental multilingual entrepreneurs to serve as guides in the process and allow for the use of Spanish and English as preferred (Cherewka, 2023). 

Conclusion

The benefits of multilingualism are wide-ranging, leading to academic, economic, and sociocultural benefits for individuals and building communities that make space for all individuals to flourish. Adult educators have just as many wide-ranging options of how to draw on adults’ multilingualism to support them in reaching their civic, linguistic, and economic objectives. By drawing on multilingual learners’ many strengths and embedding multilingualism within program design, adult educators can create educational experiences that are more engaging, relevant, and learner-centered. This approach ensures that programs are tailored to the learners’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Finally, Normalizing multilingualism in our adult education spaces—making these practices a standard and accepted part of everyday classroom activities—can transform our broader communities. By integrating these practices into education, we can break down barriers, support learning, and foster an environment where diverse languages, experiences, and cultures are celebrated. This shift not only enriches the learning experience for everyone involved but also promotes a more inclusive, understanding, and connected society where multilingualism is valued as a key skill and as an inclusive approach to language learning.


References

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Celic, C., & Seltzer, K. (2013). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB Guide for Educators. CUNY-NYSIEB, The Graduate Center, the City University of New York. https://www.cuny-nysieb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Translanguaging-Guide-March-2013.pdf

Cherewka, A. (2023). Enhancing Access for Refugees and New Americans. https://lincs.ed.gov/sites/default/files/EARNMultilingualSpotlight.pdf

Cherewka, A., Hudson, S., & Kaiper-Marquez, A. (2024). A strengths-based approach to multilingualism for adult education and family literacy. National Center for Families Learning. https://familieslearning.org/blog/a-strengths-based-approach-to-multilingualism-for-adult-education-and-family-literacy/

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