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  • Destiny Yarbro

Ways to Upset Language Power Dynamics in the Classroom

Many countries, especially those with large and diverse populations, are unsure of how to address minority language communities. This issue is deeply rooted in how minority languages are welcomed, or not welcomed, in our schools. Comparing my home country, the United States (US) with the European continent through this lens is fascinating.

The United States Is More Linguistically Diverse Than Europe

The United States and Europe are relatively the same landmass and both have highly diverse language populations with 350 languages reported by the US Census Bureau (2015) and 24 official languages, 60 classified minority languages, and over 200 languages spoken in Europe (European Commission, n-d). The European Union (EU) is focused on “enabling every EU citizen to communicate in 2 languages other than their mother tongue” and the United States is, frankly, not (European Union, n-d). Two examples of this priority, or lack thereof, are the US Citizenship test only available in English and the US Food and Drug Administration (1995) requiring no other languages besides English on food labels (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, n-d, para.1).

20% of American Students Study Languages vs. 80% of European Students

Statistics for language learning in schools is even more stark between the two locations. A study by Pew Research in 2018 pointed out that while 80-100% of European students study an additional language in school, only 20% of American K-12 students do. Marty Abbott of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages points out that this statistic is only part of the picture as only 8.1% of U.S. postsecondary students study an additional language (Devlin, 2018; Abbott as quoted in WBUR, 2018). A report by The Modern Language Association noted that from 1997 to 2010, there was a 17% decline in schools requiring language study in the US (Lusin, 2012, p.2). In another report, they shared the “stunning statistic” that 651 higher education language programs were closed from 2013 to 2016 compared to only 1 program closing from 2009 to 2013 (Johnson, 2019).

English-Centric United States

While the European Commission (n-d) emphasizes that there is “unity through [linguistic] diversity,” a common and entrenched view in the United States, penned by Richard Alba of the Migration Policy Institute, is that English is the “linguistic ‘glue’ holding America together” (2005, para.1). How do we as teachers help affect this issue and promote “bilingualism and language pluralism” to “usher in a new era that breaks the hegemony of Anglo-American culture” (Alba, 2005, para.2)?

Upsetting Language Power Dynamics in the Classroom

I believe one of the greatest impacts a teacher can have is to appreciate linguistic diversity in the classroom and usurp the prevalent idea that English is the superior language and all others are inferior (a natural byproduct in monolinguistic and ethnocentric communities). After years of collecting my thoughts (this topic absolutely fascinates me), I believe a multilingual perspective can be nurtured in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Regularly emphasizing the brilliance of knowing more than one language and identifying ways minority language students can lead out.

  • Recruiting minority language-speaking students to join language classes and be language models, group leaders, etc. (In my home town in Arizona, over 50% of the residents were native Spanish-speakers but the few students who took Spanish spent their time learning how to conjugate verbs, write out basic sentences, and voice a few phrases with their equally ignorant class partners. Not once were our Spanish-speaking classmates brought in to speak with us. Not once did our “Spanish” leave the confines of the classroom and take on life as a real, living language. Thus, Spanish was viewed as useless and irrelevant. Sadly, this seems to be the norm rather than the exception in the U.S.).

  • Encouraging minority language students to do class presentations first in their native language and second in English. (This can be calming for the student themselves, eye-opening for classmates, spark a desire to learn other languages, and nurture more understanding when this student presents in their second or third language: English.)

  • Taking language classes outside of the classroom. Similar to the “Do-Re-Mi” market scene on The Sound of Music, vibrant language learning happens outside of the classroom as communication happens around common, everyday things and through experiential learning.

  • If an assignment is not about English proficiency but about delving into an idea or issue, allowing students to write papers in their native language and teachers using Google Translate or other tools to read their papers. (Or perhaps having the student write a single paragraph overview in English to submit with their paper.)

  • Promoting online language courses to count for a school’s language requirement. This flexibility would allow students to take courses that appeal or apply to them most. (I am still amazed that Latin or German make the cut-off for language learning in many schools. The last native-Latin speaker died over a millennia ago and there are only a few countries that speak German as compared to Portuguese, Arabic, French, Chinese, Spanish, etc. Lest you think I hate Latin and German, I took Latin in school and found it applicable to my learning Spanish and Esperanto and I lived in Germany and love the German language. Yet, German was still the third most taught language in US schools behind Spanish and French until 2013 [Looney & Lusin, 2016]. Thankfully, American Sign Language is now third due to the greater acceptance and popularity of sign language in the last two decades. Afterall, the odds of an American birthing a baby who only speaks German is quite remote, but 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents making sign language much more applicable to the average American [NIDCD, 2016].)


As teachers, our call is “to improve the lives of the students with whom we work” as our portfolio assignment says this week. Part of this is nurturing a student’s linguistic heritage and developing all students into global citizens with multilingual and multicultural perspectives. Rather than splintering our society, relatable and useful language courses promote a greater unity in diversity in our classrooms and, thus, the world.


Alba, R. (2005, February 1). Bilingualism persists, but English still dominates.

Devlin, K. (2018, August 6). Most European students are learning a foreign language in school while Americans lag.

European Commission. (n-d). Linguistic Diversity. Retrieved on October 8, 2020, from

European Union. (n-d). EU Languages. Retrieved on October 8, 2020, from

Johnson, S. (2019, January 22). Colleges lose a ‘stunning’ 651 foreign-language programs in 3 years.

Looney, D. and Lusin, N. (2016, February). Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Preliminary Report. [web publication.]

Lusin, N. (2012, March). The MLA Survey of Postsecondary Entrance and Degree Requirements for Languages Other Than English, 2009–10. [web publication.]

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders [NIDCD]. (2016, December 15). Quick statistics about hearing.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2015, November 3). Census Bureau reports at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (n-d). Study for the Test. Retrieved on October 8, 2020, from

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (1995, March). CPG Sec 562.400 Foreign Language Declarations on Food Labels. In Compliance Policy Guide. (1973, December 12).

WBUR. (2018, July 16). Why there’s a language learning gap in the United States.


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