Lost in translation: bilingual students and deliberative democracy in the classroom

English language education can equip bilingual students with skills for civic participation. But can it hear their voices? Esperanza De La Vega looks at barriers to learning and participation in ‘Deliberative Democracy: A Contested Interactive Space’.

De La Vega refers to previous research by Tonda Liggett. Liggett calls for English language students to be skilled in presenting ideas in the classroom that aim to prepare students for democratic participation. De La Vega responds to this with a closer look at social and cultural contexts that shape language learning environments. She draws from personal experiences as a bilingual student to illustrate how differences of language and culture affect participation. She reflects, when language is closely connected to identity and learning, what can it mean for students and teachers?

Language proficiency affects perceptions and assessments, her research shows. She also looks at how classrooms reflect political realities of the world beyond the classroom; how teachers can create an encouraging environment for bilingual students, and how educational participation relates to civic life. Deliberative democracy, as an educational focus, is a worthy ideal, she argues. But it needs to address how it excludes marginalized voices. Education, like democracy, is affected by systemic injustices, making participation a loaded issue, she writes. How can teachers counter these background inequalities mirrored in the classroom?

De La Vega proposes that teachers can look at bilingual student participation through a ‘sociocultural lens’ to understand the classroom as a contested interactive space. While she acknowledges the importance of English language proficiency, she cautions against an oversimplified view of learning standards and participation. She calls for educators to address the systemic injustices that keep bilingual students from achieving their potential.    

Professor Esperanza De La Vega coordinates the Bilingual Teacher Pathway (BTP) program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Portland State University.  

 Photo: Joao Silas/unsplash/cc

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