The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Half of the world is bilingual. What’s our problem?

The Seal of Biliteracy was created in 2008 by the advocacy group Californians Together. Thirty-five states and the District are putting it on diplomas.
The Seal of Biliteracy was created in 2008 by the advocacy group Californians Together. Thirty-five states and the District are putting it on diplomas. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

In New York, a restaurant customer threatened to turn the staff over to immigration authorities if they didn’t stop speaking Spanish to one another. In Montana, a Border Patrol agent demanded the identification of two American citizens chatting in Spanish at a gas station. In Georgia, one Walmart customer scolded another for speaking Spanish to her 3-year-old daughter.

It happens often. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 22 percent of Hispanics said someone had criticized them for speaking America’s most popular foreign language. Twenty percent said they had been told to go back to their home country.

Yet in the nation’s high schools, the language issue is going in a surprisingly different direction. At Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel, Calif., for instance, Dylan Rojas is about to graduate with a special designation on his diploma celebrating his fluency in Spanish and English.

It is called the Seal of Biliteracy, created in 2008 by the advocacy group Californians Together. Thirty-five states and the District are putting it on diplomas, but it is so under the radar that many students never hear of it until they receive it.

Rojas, with Spanish speakers on one side of his family and Vietnamese and Cantonese speakers on the other, knows the seal goes against strong feelings among some people that English should be No. 1. Foreign-language skills are often overlooked, he said, but “bilingualism is helpful when forming new connections with people around the country, whether it be for social or work purposes.”

There was no such seal on my high school diploma. I speak some Chinese, but like most Americans, I rely on English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 20 percent of Americans can converse in two or more languages, compared with 56 percent of Europeans. Experts estimate about half of the human race is bilingual, at least.

I have two children fluent in Spanish, learned in private schools and through study in Latin America. They use the language in their jobs. That impresses people. But why aren’t the millions of public school students from impoverished homes who can handle two languages similarly valued and praised?

I spent five years writing a book about a high school in East Los Angeles where nearly every parent lacked a college degree, but nearly every student was bilingual. The school had a bad reputation because of low test scores in reading and math, even though its students’ bilingualism put schools in rich parts of town to shame.

Fifty-six percent of Gabrielino’s students are from low-income families, with an ethnic mix that is characteristic of northeast Los Angeles County. Fifty-eight percent are of Asian descent and 33 percent are Hispanic. To get the Seal of Biliteracy, they must have a 2.0 average in English courses and score proficient on the state English language arts test. Credit for proficiency in a non-English tongue requires a passing score on tests such as Advanced Placement or demonstrated proficiency in a four-year course.

Other states and districts awarding the seal have similar rules. Colleges and universities have started to recognize it. A survey of employers found that 66 percent of them would give preference to an applicant with that designation.

“With so many jobs becoming tech- and service-based, our students need to be able to compete with people from all over the world,” said Sharron Heinrich, the principal at Gabrielino High School. “Being bilingual or trilingual enables them to compete economically and be a contributing member of the larger world community.”

Gabrielino seniors receiving the seal have unusual family stories. “My mom speaks Mandarin and my dad speaks Burmese to me and my brothers at home,” said Shwe Win, who plans to go to medical school. Moving to America helped her master English, but being certified in Chinese was harder because “there are thousands of Chinese characters to memorize,” she said.

Sohaib Usman was born in Pakistan. His second language is Urdu. He said he thought the award would help immigrants like him “not shy away from their ethnicity and be proud of who they are.”

Sounds good. Perhaps the rest of us might reconsider our pride in knowing only one language, or at least stop drawing attention to the gap between us and humanity in general.

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