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  • Destiny Yarbro

How to Utilize Minority Language Speakers in the Classroom [Infographic]

I am interested in studying how to support minority language speakers in the classroom. I have taught American Sign Language in the classroom and currently teach international sign languages online. I also run a nonprofit organization that sponsors the first Deaf college students in developing nations. In these milieus, I see how valuable the strategies listed by Ruggs and Hebl (2012) are:

  1. Raising awareness of the importance of understanding and embracing all types of diversity in the classroom

  2. Culturally responsive teaching that infuses cultural characteristics, perspectives, and experiences of ethnically and racially diverse students into one’s teaching style to help a broader range of students understand the content presented

  3. Become aware of, incorporate, and promote outreach-education programs to prepare students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds (p.9)

Strategy number two, culturally responsive teaching, is specifically important in my milieu. However, because strategy number one sparked many thoughts for me, I will address “raising awareness” in this portfolio assignment. Two Deaf schools come to mind when I consider what effective awareness looks like in the classroom.

Deaf School in Cape Town, South Africa

I visited the first school in Cape Town, South Africa, and met with the teaching staff. They were kind and caring but there was not a single Deaf teacher or a single Black teacher (despite that the majority of their students were Black and all were Deaf). One teaching assistant told me that they only hire teachers with degrees and since universities were often reluctant to accept Deaf students, there were no Deaf teachers at their school. Yep, it was unsettling.

Deaf School in Tema, Ghana

I visited the second school in Tema, Ghana. The teachers were lax in their teaching and when I asked what they taught, they were open in saying they taught their Deaf students very little. One teacher said there was no point because “they would just leave and beg” in the streets. Needless to say this experience inspired me to start The Deaf Dream organization. I figured that if these teachers saw Deaf students attend college, they would have a concrete reason to teach their students up to standard. (That was and still is the hope, anyways.)

Fast forward eight years and our second scholarship student, Victoria Aggrey, now teaches at the Cape Coast School for the Deaf in Ghana. She was the first female Deaf college student in her country and graduated with a teaching degree. Everyday Victoria’s students see a Deaf (!) and female (!) instructor who encourages them to go to college.

Visible Language Models in the Classroom

When I consider the first strategy, I see that “raising awareness” is less effective than “visible models.” No amount of posters on the wall, no amount of pep talks, could ever take the place of a Deaf teacher. “School systems can also help provide role models by recruiting diverse educators and ensuring that diverse individuals are represented at school-hosted functions” (Ruggs & Hebl, 2012, p. 9).

Growing up in Arizona, nearly 20% of the population are native Spanish speakers (CensusScope, 2000). In my hometown, the percentage was undoubtedly higher. Learning a language was a requirement in public schools with Spanish being the common choice. Not one of the Spanish teachers I remember from my school were native speakers. But an even more sad reality was that despite the fact that we had a large number of our classmates who spoke Spanish, not one was ever invited into our Spanish class. Not once were we encouraged to use our Spanish to communicate outside of the classroom. Our studies focused on grammar, conjugations, and examinations, not communication with our peers.

Benefits of Utilizing Minority Speakers in the Classroom

If I could go back in time to my school and make one adjustment, it would be to involve our Spanish-speaking peers in the classroom. There were probably several reasons why our teachers were not native Spanish speakers. Our small community school often had teachers teach 3+ subjects each semester, teaching courses that they didn’t necessarily graduate in. Thus, I believe that the simplest but most effective way to raise awareness would be to involve the minority language-speaking peers in the classroom.

I believe this one change would have many benefits, including:

1. Native Language Examples. The minority language classmates know the language, grew up in a native language environment, and may have worked hard to learn English to assimilate so they understand the challenge of learning a new language.

2. Flip Power Dynamics. Too often, minority language students are at a disadvantage in the power dynamics of a traditional classroom. “According to social reproductive theory, those in power are linguistically and culturally depriving minorities of the ways they learn best to maintain the status quo” (Stanford, n-d). Inviting them to lead out in assignments, group discussions, and conversational exercises, helps balance the scale.

3. Perspective Change in Classmates. Classmates of these minority students will see them in a new light. They will see them as the capable leaders they are and any assumptions regarding lack of academic ability will fade away as these monolingual students try to function in a new language for the first time. They will see bilingualism as an advantage.

4. Language Inseparable with Culture and Community. The greatest advantage (from a language teachers’ perspective) is that students will see that language is inseparably and indispensably connected to the people who use the language. Seeing their classmates function and have pride in their linguistic heritage will turn a boring class on grammar into a living, breathing treasure. This is a language professor’s dream!

Often “raising awareness” of diversity in the classroom is quite passive. Teachers may put up posters, have students read a book by a minority author, make speeches about the value of diversity. But I see this being very ineffective unless diverse role models are introduced and maintained in the classroom. In the case of minority languages, inviting native speaking peers into the classroom is a simple but immensely valuable and positive way to shift the entrenched assumptions and rigid power dynamics.


CensusScope. (2000.) States Ranked by Percent of Population Age 5+ Speaking Spanish.

Stanford. (n-d). Language and Power. Linguistic Diversity in the Classroom.

Ruggs, E. & Hebl, M. (2012) Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Awareness for Classroom and Outreach Education. In B. Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.). Apply Research to Practice (ARP) Resources.


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