For the last few months at Cognitive ToyBox we’ve had the pleasure of working with Emily Guo, a graduate of Northwestern University. Among other projects, she supports customers and relays feedback from users to our product team for improvements. Her studies in anthropology, economics, and global health have been preparing her to continue pursuing her passion for language and cultural studies. Here she describes how cultural awareness can help ed-tech startups better address the needs of the learners in an increasingly diverse world.
“She Doesn’t Know…English”
For many young children, going to preschool is an exciting milestone. It’s a whole new environment, a world full of firsts for these young learners. It may be the first time they are separated from their parents or caregivers for a day, or the first time they meet new friends. It might even be the first time they need to use a language other than the one they speak at home.
That was the exact situation my friend, Erica, found when she first attended preschool. Having grown accustomed to speaking mostly Mandarin Chinese at home, Erica was faced with a new challenge in an English-dominant classroom.
Erica told me how her teacher expressed concern to her mom after the first day, explaining, “She doesn’t know…English.” In an English-dominant setting, her teacher’s concern was understandable—a student needs to be able to understand the teacher’s instruction.
But Erica’s mom simply responded with a chuckle, “It’s okay, she’ll learn.” Erica’s mother knew that her daughter would struggle to learn English compared to her English-dominant classmates. However, she valued Erica’s ability to speak her family’s language. She felt confident Erica would be able to use both English and Mandarin. Even though learning English might be tough at first, Erica’s mom believed her daughter’s dual language ability would be worth it in the long run.
U.S. Bilingual Education system
One in five students in U.S. public schools comes from a home in which English is not the primary language, according to a paper by researchers K. Batalova and M. McHugh. Linguistic diversity is more common than many realize. However, at an early age, students and their families are pressured to fit in with the norms of their environment. Some students learn to deny their non-English language abilities or feel ashamed of their “accented” English as young as the age of 5, according to Stanford University professor Jonathan Rosa.
The vast majority of bilingual education programs in the U.S. are termed “Transitional Bilingual Education” programs. TBE programs are distinct from dual-language bilingual programs that aim to develop full use of multiple languages. Instead, they teach students in both English and their non-English language for a time, but their ultimate goal is English acquisition rather than dual language use, according to research from P. Gándara and K. Escamilla.
Most programs offered to English-language learners, who make up 10 percent of students in the U.S., are TBE programs. Among TBE programs, the majority serve Spanish-speaking students. The emphasis on English acquisition in transitional bilingual education for ELLs and Spanish-speaking students as opposed to dual-language education creates a narrative around when multilingualism is seen as a strength, and when it is viewed as a barrier.
How Language Plays Into Equity
For young ELLs and those perceived as ELLs, language may seem like an obvious barrier to quality education in English-dominant classrooms. However, language is just one part of the story. Intersections along lines of race and class exacerbate the ways language use becomes associated with intelligence, capability, or success. And too often, communities and communities of color are constrained by this narrative and its devaluation of linguistic diversity.
Programs that do promote multilingual learning, however, tend to be elite programs, inaccessible to those who could benefit from such a linguistically inclusive environment. These dual-language programs are resource-intensive, requiring multilingual staff, expensive enrichment activities, and high parent involvement. On the other hand, parents and school staff note that TBE programs lack substantive enriching bilingual education programming that advocates for two-way bilingualism and biliteracy, according to Rosa and O. Garcia. For those programs, language use and natural bilingualism is not something to be enhanced all-around, but as Rosa puts it, “a problem to be managed.”
Current U.S. federal and state policies around bilingualism favor English-only use, not recognizing the need for linguistic inclusivity in classrooms. This approach risks not only severe language loss that is already happening among communities of color, but creates a far less accessible and shame-inducing approach to education.
This stigmatization around bilingualism becomes even more damaging when connected to race and ethnicity. Latinx, African American, Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Desi Americans; groups whose language use extends outside the mainstream English-only use, can feel inadequate or, to use Rosa’s term, “languageless” as they struggle to meet others’ expectations in both English and their home language.
Linking Technology to Inclusivity
Addressing structural issues of inequity requires systemic solutions for change. The technology we use today has a place in making education in children’s early years both more culturally and linguistically inclusive. Schools and the families they serve require a more inclusive environment in order to flourish. Inclusivity means making conscious decisions for structural changes that center around marginalized voices and struggles.
One way startups can differentiate themselves and address market demands is to build appropriate inclusivity into their products from the ground up. The startup where I’ve been an intern for the last few months, Cognitive ToyBox, provides educators with a formative assessment tool in English and Spanish and equips families with a dual-language platform to track their child’s development. As the U.S. faces a challenging but necessary step toward cultural inclusivity, districts continue to support diverse parents, teachers, and students. For example, 92 languages other than English are spoken in Los Angeles Unified schools, and that’s just one district.
Still growing as a young startup, Cognitive ToyBox recognizes that the first iteration of Spanish accessibility needs some work in order to meet the demands of supporting multiple languages. To expand and improve the language accessibility of early childhood assessment, Cognitive ToyBox has been working to refactor our technology to build a system that will support more languages in addition to English and Spanish. By putting language inclusivity at the core of early childhood assessment, we can create an environment where multilingual students can confidently show their skills and equip teachers with the tools they need to help them grow and feel empowered by their home language.
We’d like to connect with other startups interested in sharing how they are addressing language inclusivity in their technology products!
Image to the right, courtesy of free collection on GoogleImages. Top image by Getty