A Nation with Multiple Languages: The Many Faces of English Language Learners (ELLs)
Many immigrants and refugees have come to the United States over the years, and when an increase in newcomers reminds us of this fact, we often express concerns. In the past 30 years, the foreign-born population of the U.S. has tripled, more than 14 million immigrants moved to the U.S. during the 1990s, and another 14 million are expected to arrive between 2000 and 2010. These numbers have lead to reports about an emerging and underserved population of students who are English language learners (ELLs).
Some reports portray English language learners as a new and homogenous population. Actually ELLs are a highly heterogeneous and complex group of students, with diverse gifts, educational needs, backgrounds, languages, and goals. Some ELL students come from homes in which no English is spoken, while some come from homes where only English is spoken; others have been exposed to or use multiple languages. ELL students may have a deep sense of their non-U.S. culture, a strong sense of multiple cultures, or identify only with U.S. culture. Some ELL students are stigmatized for the way they speak English; some are stigmatized for speaking a language other than English; some are stigmatized for speaking English. Some ELL students live in cultural enclaves while their fellow ELL students are surrounded by non-ELL families; some ELL students’ families have lived in the U.S. for over a generation. Some may be high achievers in school while others struggle. They may excel in one content area and need lots of support in another. Some feel capable in school while others are alienated from schooling.
In the largest sense, all students are learning English, and each ELL student falls at a different point on the spectrums of experiences described above. One thing is certain: there is no one profile for an ELL student, nor is one single response adequate to meet their educational goals and needs. ELL students are a diverse group that offers challenges and opportunities to U.S. education and to English language arts teachers in particular. 1
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