What’s an “Emerging Bilingual?”

Recognizing Multilingualism in Education

Table of Contents

I used to work for a language learning company that developed products for students learning English in the US K-12 education system.  I liked it a lot.  I got to work with committed teachers and administrators to integrate the children of immigrants into the American education system.  The work even meant something personal: my grandparents arrived in the US a hundred years ago and had to learn English, make a living, and raise their kids (my parents) in their second language.  Whenever I see today’s immigrants, I think of my grandparents.  

As I got to know the kids learning English, it was apparent how their lives were rarely easy.  With their family, they were all acclimating to a new culture.  Many faced financial difficulties and often outright prejudice.  I knew everything we could do to help was a step in the right direction.  I was confident I was on the right team. 

The Rise of Emerging Bilinguals

There have been a lot of changes in teaching English over the years, but the one I want to talk about today is the change in what these learners are called.  In the past, these kids were typically called some version of “English Learner” (EL), “English Language Learner” (ELL), or they were in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program.  However, there’s been a widespread change in the last five or ten years.  Now, they’re most often called “Emerging Bilinguals.”  While the number of students learning English has grown modestly over the last fifteen years (from 4.4 million in 2005 to 5.1 million in 2020), the usage of “emerging bilinguals” in publications over the same period has increased by almost 100x.

Recognizing Multilingualism in Education

This might seem like how names change in education (“Government” class becomes “Civics”, or “English” becomes “Language Arts”), but I think the change gets to something meaningful.  It represents the change from a deficit focus to an asset focus.  With the change of name, the emphasis changes from something the learners lack (they don’t know English) to something they possess (native fluency in one language and developing fluency in another).  This change of focus can change our attitudes about the kids.  As kids in an ESL program, they have a problem that needs to be solved; but as emerging bilinguals, they’re superheroes.  I’ve studied languages for most of my life, and I’ll never have what most of these kids have after only a year or two in US schools: complete, native, or near-native fluency in two (or more) languages.  

Emerging bilingual students are tomorrow’s multinational corporations and international relations leaders.  They bring a natural competence to issues of diversity and inclusivity.  And they will be the ones who thrive in the globalized world of the future.  

So, you’re always just one language class away from becoming an emerging bilingual.  Start your journey to bilingualism, or support the emerging bilingualism of your colleagues, your employees, and their families today.

Jack bio:

Jack Marmorstein is Global LT's Chief Learning Officer. He has been working in language learning and technology for twenty-five years. He has graduate degrees in literature and psychology and is an inventor with seven patents on language learning technologies. He's worked with language learners on five continents and is an expert in second language acquisition.

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