Multilingualism education unifies, expert says

Dr. Kim Potowski proposed a remodeling of the U.S. education system to promote bilingualism while speaking to Baylor students Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Dr. Kim Potowski

By Rewon Shimray | Staff Writer

While about 60 percent of the world population speaks more than one language, approximately 20 percent of Americans are multilingual.

“When the majority of the population does something, that tells me that we were meant to do it,” Dr. Kim Potowski said. “That tells me the human brain was meant to have more than one language in it.”

Potowski, professor of Spanish linguistics from the University of Illinois at Chicago, proposed a remodeling of the U.S. education system to promote bilingualism at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Draper 147. The event was sponsored by the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Her “two-way” immersion model would teach in another language 90 percent of the time in kindergarten through fourth grade, then 50 percent fifth through eighth grade. Potowski said this style of education benefits both native English speakers and new English learners.

According to the New York Times, benefits of multilingualism include “improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”

Potowski cited studies from immersion-modeled schools in Houston and California that found students performed better in reading, writing and math than their peers in conventional schools. Potowski said the “code-switching” required of bilinguals requires more in-depth understandings of syntax in both languages, strengthening language skills overall.

Dr. Joan Barrett, senior lecturer of Spanish, said she views language as a skill along with music and athletic ability that make an individual well-rounded.

“It is part of human development to take advantage of as many opportunities as you can and to be as literate in as many things you can,” Barrett said. “I consider it to be a gift for a child to be able to speak more than one language fluently.”

Monolinguals are disadvantaged in conventional language-learning classes because they begin learning at a late age and the classes focus more on grammar than real-life communication, according to Potowski.

Barrett said she teaches through leading free-thinking exercises because they help the brain consider real-life applications.

“Rather than following the textbook too closely, I try to think of scenarios where they would have to use such a concept,” Barrett said. “Rather than just rote memory, you have to place the student in a scenario.”

Potowski said the bilingual schooling model helps students embrace their family identity because their home language is not viewed as a problem. In contrast to the outside world that operates in English, school would be a place where they would be positioned as most knowledgeable.

Seoul, South Korea junior Esther Kim said she wants to send her future children to a dual immersion school because it would be an culturally-embracive environment. Kim also plans to speak Korean at home because that was her first language as well. Kim is studying linguistics and speaks four languages — Korean and English fluently as well as German and Russian conversationally. She said she is confident this set-up would still allow exposure to “American culture and linguistic experience outside of the school because they live in the States.”

Potowski believes immigrants should learn English but shouldn’t be “forced to abandon their non-English languages as the price of admission.”

Current U.S. educational policies “erase” languages by either neglect or “actively erasing” through bullying, according to Potowski.

Kim said she has faced racism everywhere she has lived; she grew up in multiple countries including Germany and Kyrgyzstan. She said she noticed a different perspective between the monolingual culture of the U.S. versus the multilingual cultures in Germany and Kyrgyzstan.

“Most of the monocultural, monolingual people I’ve met are Americans,” Kim said. “They can sometimes be intentionally rude about other cultures and perceive American culture as superior.”

Potowski said studying alongside diverse peers inoculates people against racism.

“I want to change the discourse in this nation about what it means to be American. You absolutely can be American and speak more than one language,” Potowski said.

The fall 2018 profile on Baylor undergraduate students shows that 658 students, representing 4.6 percent of the student body, are resident or nonresident aliens from 72 countries.