Multilingual students may soon get official recognition

by Melanie Balakit
Capital News Service

Maryland could become the fourth state in the nation to establish a Seal of Biliteracy Program, which would recognize public high school graduates who demonstrate proficiency in a language other than English.

Students would have to demonstrate proficiency in not only speaking, but also reading and writing in one or more languages other than English—including American Sign Language—according to a measure pending in the State House.

“In the 21st century, we want a school system that recognizes the importance of languages and cultures as globalization increases,” said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery County, who sponsors the bill. If passed, the measure would add a special recognition of biliteracy to the diplomas or transcripts high school graduates receive beginning in 2015.

Participation in the program by a local school system is voluntary.

“The bill celebrates biliteracy and prepares students for colleges and careers,” Gutierrez said.

About 10 percent of Maryland residents are heritage speakers, or people who speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-2012 American Community Survey. Additionally, these heritage speakers say they speak English “very well.”

Data on high school students who speak a language other than English is not available, according to the legislative analysis of the bill.

However, only a small minority of children receives enough heritage education in the community to become literate, according to a 2009 Report of the Task Force on the Preservation of Heritage Language Skills in Maryland.

The program could be incentive for heritage speakers to further develop their proficiency in their heritage language, according to Gutierrez.

Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, German, Russian, Vietnamese and Hindi are the heritage languages with the most speakers in Maryland, according to the task force report. A significant number of people speak African languages, like Igbo and Yoruba.

Gutierrez said that the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, which students can take to earn college credit, and SAT exams could be used to measure language proficiency.

Theoretically, the program would allow a student to demonstrate proficiency in any language or dialect. However, Gutierrez said that providing assessment for some non-English languages, such as Hindi or Igbo, could be difficult.

“It’s a challenge,” Gutierrez said. “We are going to have to come up with some other forms of assessment. But the program is going to push us in the right direction.”

The Maryland State Department of Education supports the program.

“We want to make sure that students demonstrate high levels of proficiency,” said Susan Spinnato, the director of instructional programs at the Maryland State Department of Education.

Spinnato, also a former Spanish teacher, noticed that students would take three years of a foreign language, but still not be able to speak it. Spinnato said that the program could encourage language teachers to change their lessons to strive for language proficiency.

Only three states have a Seal of Biliteracy Program in place. California was the first state to pass a biliteracy act in 2011. New York passed the act in 2012, and most recently, Illinois passed the act in 2013. New Mexico and Washington are currently reviewing seal of biliteracy program bills in their state legislatures, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks state and federal legislation.

Photo: Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery County, center, has proposed legislation that would recognize public high school students that can demonstrate proficiency in a language other than English. Capital News Service photo by Melanie Balakit.