California must continue to lead in closing the bilingual skills gap

July 19, 2018

A dual-language immersion class in Fresno Unified.

High school seniors in nearly three dozen states walked across the graduation stage last month to receive a diploma with a unique distinction that signifies they are even better positioned for success: a Seal of Biliteracy.

David Bong

That’s because in today’s global economy and multicultural society, the skill of being bilingual is becoming increasingly valuable in the eyes of colleges and employers. In fact, a recent study from the New American Economy showed that demand for bilingual workers more than doubled between 2010 and 2015.

The growth in the number of states offering a Seal of Biliteracy — a designation on a student’s high school diploma demonstrating their proficiency in both English and another language — is evidence of this trend. California was the first state to adopt the seal in 2011. As of today, the seal has been implemented in 34 states with more adopting it each year.

As the state seeks even greater success, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recently issued a Global California 2030 plan, which sets a goal of tripling by 2030 the 46,952 Seals of Biliteracy that California awarded this year, and to quadruple the number of dual immersion schools over the same period. It also calls for increasing the number of state-approved bilingual teacher preparation programs, along with the number of bilingual teachers they produce.

This is so important, because while we hear a lot about the skills gap in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, the bilingual skills gap gets much less attention. That gap is real and growing, particularly in California. According to a New American Economy report, in 2017, “despite being home to 12.4 percent of the overall U.S. working-age population, California accounted for 19.4 percent of all job ads seeking bilingual workers.”

It is more proof that bilingualism has a direct economic benefit, increasing a person’s earning potential, job opportunities and chances at promotions. But being bilingual also has significant cognitive benefits, from improved listening and communications skills to enhanced cross-cultural awareness and greater empathy.

Not coincidentally, these “soft skills” are the ones that Google highlighted as being most indicative of success in their Project Oxygen study of what traits were found among the company’s highest achievers. These skills all ranked above being a strong technical performer.

So why aren’t we investing even more heavily in bilingual education? As the number of students getting a Seal of Biliteracy in California has grown, many school districts have responded by growing their language programs. Los Angeles Unified has offered programs leading up to the seal for younger students for some time and is quickly expanding its dual language immersion programs, as are many districts such as San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont and San Diego.

But students and teachers should not focus only on commonly taught languages. According to the Global 2030 plan, California public school students speak more than 60 languages at home. So while a number of students across the country received the Seal of Biliteracy for Spanish or French this year, it’s important to note that there were also thousands who took the test in “heritage” languages that are not usually taught in the classroom — like Polish, Filipino, Arabic, or even the Native Alaskan language Yup’ik.

No matter what languages a student may speak, being bilingual offers tremendous value that deserves to be recognized. Offering equal opportunity for students to get the Seal of Biliteracy is critical. If we truly want to prepare all our students — and our economy — for future success, we should be encouraging and celebrating students who learn and maintain their heritage languages as well as English. We should be engaging all students in language learning from an early age. And we should be investing in world language programs just as much as STEM and other important subjects.

The Global California 2030 plan is an excellent start, and meeting its aggressive goals is going to take leadership, commitment and investment at every level — from legislators to local school districts and parents.

It’s worth the effort. Because no matter what type of career a student may pursue, being bilingual will pay huge dividends. All students deserve that opportunity.


David Bong is the CEO of Avant Assessment, a leading provider of  language proficiency tests for schools and businesses internationally. 

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