How deficit language screws up young people

Last month I was at a conference in Sacramento on community leadership and development. One of the sessions that I attended was called Strategies for Creating Great Neighborhoods. Going into the session, I imagined the speaker would focus on very tangible things like which types of trees to plant along the street, ways to make your neighborhood hipster proof, or reasons why Asians make excellent neighbors. Instead, I was surprised to learn that the most essential strategy for creating great neighborhoods was simply changing the way we talk about them. For example, “Don’t do street clean-ups, have beautification projects” and “neighborhoods shouldn’t have block watches, they should have welcoming committees.”

There was a lot more content to the workshop of course, but it made me realize that too often we use “deficit language,” which focuses on negatives and weaknesses, to describe the way things are in society. After the workshop, I began to think about how deficit language is even used in the youth and community development field—especially toward minorities.

For example, students who have a home language other than English are typically labeled as “English Language Learners.” In Seattle Public Schools, about 12% of students are classified as either having “limited English proficiency” or “equal English proficiency.” The majority of these students are Asian, followed by Latino and other minority groups–all largely from refugee and immigrant communities.

Not only does this label focus on an attribute that students lack, in this case English, but the automatic response it creates is one of “These students don’t know English, so we teach them. Problem solved.” We provide extra tutoring, send home more reading assignments and drill vocabulary into them. And if they don’t succeed the way we expect them to, we place an unfair amount of blame on them. But let’s be honest, refugee and immigrant communities aren’t the only ones who struggle with English. President George W. Bush was notorious for his gaffes!

The idea of force feeding English to a non-native speaker is about as effective as trying to get a vegan to eat bacon (believe me, I’ve tried!). At first, they will probably salivate because bacon is delicious, but soon they’ll feel terrible about themselves and binge on tofurkey. The same goes for these youth. If we keep referring to them by what they lack, they too will feel terrible about themselves and binge on tofurkey.

Instead, we should focus on the rich culture, language and heritage that these youth possess. At VFA, we run a weekly Saturday English School that serves about 150 students from over 30 countries. They collectively speak more than 20 different languages! Many come from very challenging backgrounds that most people will never experience, such as violent conflicts, food shortages, and natural disasters. By focusing on these students’ strengths and natural gifts—such as honoring their native language and culture—we create an environment where all students feel empowered to learn. Chocolate and ice cream parties are also effective.

How should we identify these students instead? I struggled with this question myself, because English Language Learners has been ingrained in the vocabulary of education for so long the term. So I did what I always do when I have a question I can’t answer: Googled it. I found a compelling 2008 report from the Campaign for Education Equity (pdf) which suggests we use the term emergent bilinguals.

English language learners are in fact emergent bilinguals. That is, through school and through acquiring English, these children become bilingual, able to continue to function in their home language as well as in English, their new language and that of school. When officials and educators ignore the bilingualism that these students can and often must develop through schooling in the United States, they perpetuate inequities in the education of these children. That is, they discount the home languages and cultural understandings of these children and assume their educational needs are the same as a monolingual child.

So that’s my two-cents on how we can improve on youth and community development work. If you have other examples of deficit language in action or suggestions on how to improve it, I’d love to hear it! Post a comment in the box below or email me.


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