Secretary Cardona Touts Multilingual Education in Being Bilingual Is A Superpower Initiative Launch Event

Secretary Cardona Touts Multilingual Education in Being Bilingual Is A Superpower Initiative Launch Event

November 16, 2023

Thank you and welcome, everyone!

I want to start with a story that illustrates why we’re here today. It’s the story of a young undocumented student who came from Mexico City to Texas.

At the time, she didn’t speak a word of English. And I think many of us here know how challenging that can be – how demoralized you feel when you just can’t understand what the other students seem to understand right away.  That feeling when your knowledge of a language other than English suddenly feels like a deficit instead of the asset it is.

Ultimately, this student found an ESL teacher, Ms. Hernandez, who looked like her, and spoke both Spanish and English. Ms. Hernandez inspired her to embrace multilingualism as her superpower. It sparked her journey toward becoming a teacher herself, and an activist who fights for students just like her.

Through it all, she and Ms. Hernandez continued to keep in touch. And I’m proud to say she now works here at the Department of Education. In fact, you just heard her introduce me!

Montserrat Garibay, thank you so much – not only for that introduction today, but for your incredible leadership every day on multilingualism through our Office of English Language Acquisition, or OELA.

I know you believe deeply, as I do, that being bilingual is a superpower.

It’s an economic superpower.

85% of U.S. employers say they rely on Spanish – while others say they rely on Chinese, French, or Japanese.

Several studies point to greater incomes and competitiveness for bilingual workers – not surprising when 96 percent of the world’s consumers and two-thirds of its purchasing power actually reside outside U.S. borders.

And multilingualism is also a cognitive superpower.

There’s a growing body of research that demonstrates how multilingual people develop higher creativity, problem solving, and greater flexibility and control over decision making.  It almost goes without saying that these are all tremendous assets in your life and career.

But we also recognize that right now, our nation is not seizing the full potential of multilingualism as our superpower.  Not even close.

We are one of the most beautifully diverse nations in the world.  350 different languages are spoken here.  Yet only 20 percent of Americans can converse in two or more languages.

The number of people who speak a language other than English in this country has tripled over the last three decades.  And yet, I’ll bet many, if not most, of them have been made to feel that’s a deficit that holds them back, rather than an asset that gives them a leg up.

If you are a speaker of a native tribal language – and I know we have several here today – I know you are also acutely familiar with a tragic chapter of our nation’s history, where those in power practiced appalling policies of forced assimilation of native languages and cultures.  Those policies were shameful, and they were wrong.

Today, I want to say it loud and clear to all who speak tribal languages: your native language is a superpower.  Your native culture is a superpower.

And this month, as we celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, let’s recognize that we can’t talk about multilingualism in this country if we aren’t celebrating and revitalizing native languages – and if we aren’t honoring tribal consultation and educational sovereignty.  This must be a core part of our approach to multilingualism – and it is.

At the end of the day, our multilingualism agenda is about nothing less than finally unleashing the full potential of our nation.

And we can’t just be satisfied with words. We need real actions to create lasting change.

That’s really what today’s release event is about: highlighting some of the concrete resources Montserrat and her team at OELA have launched to help districts and schools turn policy into practice and increase student access to multilingual programs.  

First, we’ve put together an English Learner Toolkit, which is about helping state and local education agencies fulfill their legal obligations under Federal civil rights laws.

It’s important to understand what these laws say about protecting the rights of English learners and treating everyone fairly.

That’s why ourOffice of Civil Rights has also circulated three fact sheets to explain schools’ legal obligations, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I encourage you to visit OCR’s Equal Educational Opportunities for English Learners webpage to learn more.

And today, we’re releasing the full edition of a Family Toolkit to help families of English learners find the right services to meet their child’s unique needs.  This will be available in Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic.

We’ve also updated our Newcomer Toolkit that supports elementary and secondary teachers; principals; and others who work with immigrant students, newcomers, asylees and refugees and their families.

In October, we hosted the first-ever webinar in Spanish; Elevando las Expectativas:  Proporcionándole a cada estudiante un camino hacia el multilingüismoon.

And for Native American students who are English learners, we’ve awarded nearly $2 million to build capacity and offer support to them.

Finally, we’re also sharing information about the benefits to students who receive state Seals of Biliteracy – and how dual language programs help students to get this credential. 

Students who earn Seals of Biliteracy already have an enormous competitive edge for their future because of their proficiency in other languages.

So we need to make sure Seals of Biliteracy are as big of a deal as having a lot of college credits or getting an honors cord at graduation.

And look: we’re far from done.  These actions are just part of the broader multilingualism agenda we announced earlier this year. 

It includes funding and supporting programs proven to work in multilingual education.

Recruiting and retaining more high-quality bilingual and multilingual educators. 

And our proposal to strengthen the capacity and technical assistance of the Title III program by reorganizing it back into the Office of English Language Acquisition.

So make no mistake: this is our multilingual moment.  You have a President who gets it.  You have a former English learner as your Secretary of Education.  You have amazing leaders like Montserrat and her team. 

Now is the time for real change.  So let’s strike while the iron is hot.

To all the state and local leaders, superintendents, principals, educators: we need your partnership.

Let’s usher in a new era of global leadership and competitiveness in our nation, anchored by multilingualism. 

Let’s build a future where every student in America is multilingual – where every young person understands their native language is an asset and learning more than one is a superpower.

¡Ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma!

Together, I know we can continue to raise the bar for multilingualism in America – for our students, for our families, for our future.  Thank you.