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my thoughts

On whether to use EL or EML or neither or nothing...

Students who speak additional languages other than English often get lumped into the category of "English Learners." This category has gone by many names over the years, including Limited English Proficient, Former Limited English Proficient, English Language Learners, and English Learners– these are often shortened to their acronyms, and students will end up being referred to simply as LEPS, FLEPS, ELLs, and ELs. Once defended as “neutral” and simply descriptive, these labels are now more commonly understood to be deficit-based– that is, they define students by what they lack, rather than by their strengths and abilities. It is understandable that there is much debate and caution over how to label students. Categorizing practices can have a real impact on how teachers and institutions view students and their potential, and even how students think of themselves. These traditional terms like English Learner and its alternatives, lend English more social and educational prestige and power than a student’s other language(s) and erase the multiple language varieties the student engages in.

Some language and education scholars have said it is time to rethink the descriptors we use for students, especially when those labels are tied to histories of racism and linguistic discrimination. Some alternatives that have been taken up are Multilingual Learner and Emergent Multilingual Learner – neither of which have been spared from acronym-ization: ML and EML, respectively. These terms have been suggested because they acknowledge that students speak many languages and don't make assumptions about their proficiency in English. However, many students could be referred to as multilingual; in other words, it does not distinguish between multilingual students who require additional linguistic services and supports in school and those who don't. Adding the qualifier Emergent to Multilingual Learner has been offered as one way to represent the former. Ofelia Garcia first coined the term “Emergent Bilingual” in 2008 to focus on the unique potential for bilingualism possessed by students who are learning English in school and to reorient an asset-based view of students’ capabilities. At some point this shifted to Emergent Multilingual Learners to be inclusive of the multiple languages (not just two) that students may be learning/using.

There has been some momentum in adopting the terms Multilingual Learner and Emergent Multilingual Lingual Learner. You can see how each state refers to this student population here: I’ve observed the use of these terms in California Department of Education publications and in Applied Linguistics and Education literature and presentations. I’ve used Multilingual Learner before myself. And Emergent Multilingual Learners is the term officially used in the local school district where I’ve been doing some research-teaching partnerships for the past few years. This shift in language to ML/EML is supposedly an improvement because it conveys that students who are learning English as another language have clear abilities and proficiencies in other languages and in other ways of knowing, thinking, and doing. But this term too is not without its limitations.

David Kauffman has written an insightful blog post about the emergence of the term “Emergent Bilingual” and summarizes some issues that have been raised. He concludes that it is an imperfect label but “is a much better label than what we have used previously.” He acknowledges that all practices can lead to “overgeneralization, incorrect assumptions, and the obscuring of important differences within the group” but pauses to point out that “categories and labels are an important part of identifying inequity and pursuing remedies.” He even offers some guidelines for how he would suggest using the term:

Like Kauffman I’ve also encountered some discourse problematizing terms like “Emergent Bilingual/Multilingual Learner.” I’ve been mulling it over as I’m finally sitting down to write my dissertation and have to be intentional about the language that I use. At the end of the day, I feel it boils down to this: students who are learning English–regardless of the specific terms used to refer to them–occupy a marked status because of the labels that are assigned to them. This is frustrating because monolingual speakers of English do not get the same treatment; they get to just be students (Chang-Bacon, 2021; Gogolin, 1997; Matsuda & Duran, 2013). This differential status is a result of ideologies of monolingualism (Chang-Bacon, 2021; Kubota, 2020; Ortega, 2019)-- the societal and systemic preference for and privilege of an imagined single, standardized language. In other words, these labels are attached to this large group of linguistically (and otherwise) diverse learners simply because their English has been evaluated as deviant from some singular “standard” or “norm.” If I were a school district or policy maker deciding between LEPS, FLEPS, ELLs, ELs, MLs, EMLs or none of the above I think I would need to understand two basic things: What is the standard/norm? And Why do we even need the label at all?

As a result of Lau v. Nichols (1974) we know that “EL classification carries with it important legal implications for the provision of services and treatments” and that the label entitles students legally to equity of educational opportunity through bilingual education and sheltered instruction (Umansky, 2018). How “need” is determined for such services and treatments is the subject of endless scholarly work but we can also go straight to the source. To know what the standard or norm is, we need to examine at what point that standard or norm is met; in other words how do we decide whether or not to reclassify a student from any of those labels? This is determined by each State Department of Education. In California, removal of the label, whatever it may be, is based on the state’s reclassification criteria, available here:

Notice in the criteria, the terms “English Learner” and “EL student” are used.

The website outlines:

Criterion 1: Assessment of English Language Proficiency

Criterion 2: Teacher Evaluations

Criterion 3: Parent Consultation

Criterion 4: Basic Skills Relative to English Proficient Students

I won’t discuss the first three criteria in detail. There is already extensive research and discussion about Criteria 1 (currently measured by the ELPAC which suffers problems common to all forms of standardized testing as well as a misplaced approach of measuring decontextualized discrete forms of language). Criteria 2 and 3 have their own challenges but promises as well. However, the fourth item on the list is more interesting for the purpose of understanding labels as it introduces a new categorizing term: “English Proficient Students.” I’ve never seen the acronym EPS to refer to students who are monolingual English speakers or English dominant; it's somewhat similar to the term "Reclassified Fluent English Proficient" (RFEP), but RFEP is specifically applied to students who were previously designated as. The term English Proficient Students is doing something else here. There is some text below Criterion four that elaborates on what they mean by “Basic Skills Relative to English Proficient Students.” It says:

“Comparison of the performance of the pupil in basic skills against an empirically established range of performance in basic skills based upon the performance of English proficient pupils of the same age, which demonstrates whether the pupil is sufficiently proficient in English to participate effectively in a curriculum designed for pupils of the same age whose native language is English.”

An English Proficient Student is a student “whose native language is English.” If this was my TEP or Education undergrad course, I’d ask again: What is the standard/norm? And why do we even need the label at all? Based on this language laid out in the California education code, the standard for classification out of English Learner status is that you perform in school like some whose native language is English, a standard that has been heavily critiqued (e.g., Cook, 1999; Doerr, 2009). This logic is also evident in the process to determine English Learner status in the first place. Students are given an assessment to determine English Learner status based on responses to the home language survey which asks about any languages other than English that are spoken at home. Therefore, we can interpret this criteria to mean that the “native”-like performance means performing like someone who is English-monolingual. But that only tells us the standard. Why do we even need the label? In one of the latter bullet points under Criteria 4 it says: "to identify needed services and supports." Sure. But why do they need the additional services and supports? The fourth criteria provides that information as well. Because the curriculum was "designed for students whose native language is English." Because school was not designed for them or even with them in mind.

Student categorized as English learners make up roughly 10.3 percent of the U.S. student population– that’s 5.0 million students that “need” a label in order to receive additional services. In essence, the need has been manufactured because the system was not designed for them. Chang-Bacon (2022) has made this argument regarding Sheltered English Immersion in Massachusetts saying, “the very notion of sheltering or accommodating multilingual learners belies a curriculum that has been designed with a different (monolingual) student in Mind” (p. 222). Chaka (2021) has also argued that remediation models like English Learner education are flawed because they structure in linguistic difference and hierarchy between so-called English Learners and the idealized, monolingual English speaker. It is no coincidence that the labels are often applied to youth who belong to racialized groups. It is because these models rely on an ideology of difference which frames multilingualism or linguistic variation as a “pathology” and characterize students as linguistic "others" when contrasted with "white literary traditions”; for the U.S., that is standardized English (Charity-Hudley & Mallison, 2010) also known as white mainstream English (Baker-Bell, 2020).

This debate can open a much bigger can of worms than just what acronym is the correct one. It exposes serious flaws in the larger system– that is, it is based in monolingual logics and modeled after privileged white linguistic practices. But at the same time, individual and some collectives of researchers, teachers, schools and districts are engaging in efforts to do better. Yet, this is the baseline from which they have to start. Labeling is an important matter not simply for the aforementioned reasons but also because remedying the education debt (Ladson-Billings, 2006) that is owed to these students requires unifying and precise language. So what can be done about it? In my own practices I’ve followed this suggestion from Nelson Flores, which he tweeted:

“Students officially designated as English Learners is kind of wordy but it is the most precise label to describe students that we have developed a range of euphemisms for including dual language learner, multilingual learner and emergent bilingual.”

To say that, “because the schools are calling students _____, I’ll be referring to them as students designated as ______” doesn’t really provide satisfying alternative shorthand. But any alternative, as Dr. Flores points out, would just be another euphemism. And this again reveals the heart of the problem: that there’s no inherent characteristic or quality about the students that requires this label, rather it is the institution that is unsuitable to serve them. Therefore the designation is an outcome of this failure and until the entire structure is rebuilt no label will be sufficient. It is not the students who are not sufficiently multilingual, it is the schools– so perhaps we should label them. Monolingual Schools (MS)?

Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge.

Chaka, C. (2021). English language learners, labels, purposes, standard English, whiteness, deficit views, and unproblematic framings: Toward southern decoloniality. Journal of Contemporary Issues in Education, 16(2).

Charity-Hudley, L., & Mallison, C. (2010). Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools. Multicultural Education Series.

Chang-Bacon, C. K. (2021). Monolingual language ideologies and the idealized speaker: The “new bilingualism” meets the “old” educational inequities. Teachers College Record, 123(1), 1-28.

Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL quarterly, 33(2), 185-209.

Doerr, N. M. (2009). Investigating “native speaker effects”: Toward a new model of analyzing “native speaker” ideologies. The native speaker concept: Ethnographic investigations of native speaker effects, 15-46.

Garcia, O. (2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals. In Equity Matters: Research Review No. 1. A Research Initiative of the Campaign for Educational Equity

Gogolin, I. (1997). The" monolingual habitus" as the common feature in teaching in the language of the majority in different countries. Per Linguam, 13(2).

Kubota, R. (2020). Critical engagement with teaching EFL: Toward a trivalent focus on ideology, political economy, and praxis. In TESOL teacher education in a transnational world (pp. 49-64). Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools. Educational researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

Matsuda, A., & Duran, C. S. (2013). Problematizing the construction of US Americans as monolingual English speakers. Language policies and (dis) citizenship: Rights, access, pedagogies, 35-51.

Ortega, L. (2019). SLA and the study of equitable multilingualism. The Modern Language Journal, 103, 23-38.


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