Language Equity Matters: Recognizing the Incredible Potential of Bilingual Learners — A Conversation with Dr. Aída Walqui
This blog post was produced by Helyn Kim, Program Officer for the English Learner Portfolio at the National Center for Education Research. It first appeared on Inside IES Research and is posted here with permission.
This year, Inside IES Research is featuring a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Dr. Aída Walqui, Director of the IES-funded National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners at WestEd about her career journey and language equity for minoritized populations.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
My background has been a tremendous influence. I was born in Lima, Peru, and grew up the first child of a modest, hard-working, politically involved, and well-educated family. From very early on, issues of language, education, and discrimination—and the way in which diverse groups were perceived—have been central in my life.
My father was born in the Peruvian jungle, and he grew up in Lima speaking Spanish. Through family conversations at the dinner table and other experiences, I became aware that Peruvian society was deeply segregated by ethnic and linguistic boundaries. For example, as a little girl, I did not understand why it was good for me to study German in a German school, where my emergent German was viewed as wonderful, and not something that negatively impacted my first language, Spanish. . . while the children in the Highlands, where we vacationed, were admonished for speaking Quechua, their native language. Their native language was considered almost an illness that needed to be eradicated, and their emergent Spanish was derided as imperfect.
Although my parents were not linguists, they explained that the language was just an excuse—the real issues were political, social, and economic control. I realized that the children who spoke Quechua were just as talented. But for them, learning Spanish was mandatory. Society saw it as the only thing to be proud of. My father also helped me understand that language was not just used for purposes of communication, but also to classify or package people—which impedes learning who people are as individuals. And that the experience of education itself had a lot to do with this.
Overall, I have had an immensely rich intellectual life. I owe my family, my late husband, and colleagues around the world for making it possible for me to live and work in many contexts, including working in Andean intercultural, bilingual education, teaching Spanish as a second language for the Peruvian Ministry of Education, teaching in Alisal High School in Salinas, CA for six intense and rewarding years, as well as living and working in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. I’ve noticed the same patterns in all these places. The languages are different, but the patterns are the same: the dismissal of populations that had been minoritized due to language issues, the enormous contribution language minority populations play in these nations, and that additional languages are assets that help you learn.
I’ve become even more determined upon realizing the incredible potential that people have. As a Latina in the United States, I have focused on developing the incredible resource of Spanish that Latinos have, while also developing English at the same level of proficiency.
Success depends on educators and those who support them envisioning the richness of these people, and by extension the richness they can provide to society. It is only looking at the seeds of time that I can say that change is possible. While sociolinguistic discrimination still exists in Peru, tremendous positive changes have also occurred. In the United States, we have similarly made strides, but still have a long way to go. In education, it is important to follow Gramsci’s old advice: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
We must coherently put together examples of what is possible. For example, our Center colleagues are working on policy levers such as how to integrate English learner development with subject matter courses to strengthen the education of English learners.
In the classroom, in the past, we have been singularly worried about how well English learners are using language, how to construct grammatical sentences, how to make those sentences correct, and so forth. In reality, the focus needs to be on multiple learning modalities as well as the subject matter, critical understanding, and the ability to express ideas—language—related to the content. That is, multiple forms of learning all matter in the moment, not just one.
We all need to know how to use language well, but we also need to simultaneously learn the content and critical thinking that language brings to life, not just grammatical labels or how you conjugate verbs.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
I would say that above all, it is essential for emerging scholars from minoritized groups to know what about education research or development is specifically important to them, and how they intend to contribute to their field, to society, and to the improvement of the groups they represent.
Knowing where your passion resides brings more than just constant direction to scholarly efforts. During difficult moments, it will sustain those efforts. Embrace educational causes you care for, even if they don’t always seem important or popular. Think through them, research them, and communicate them, time and time again, in increasingly more potent ways.
Finally, it is essential to cultivate critical dialogue with colleagues to re-examine ideas, advance proposals, and gain sight into how synergetic efforts can advance the societal educational impact of immensely talented but minoritized groups.
Dr. Aída Walqui directs the National Research and Development Center for Improving the Education of English Learners in Secondary Schools at WestEd where she started and developed one of its signature programs, the Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) initiative. QTEL focuses on the development of the expertise of teachers and educational leaders to support elementary and secondary English Learners’ conceptual, analytic, and language practices in disciplinary subject matter areas. Her main area of interest and research is teacher expertise in multilingual academic contexts and how to promote its growth across the continuum of teacher professional development. In 2016 on the 50th anniversary of the International TESOL Association, Dr. Walqui was selected as one of the 50 most influential researchers in the last 50 years in the field of English Language teaching.