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Commentary: The Promise of Linguistic Diversity in the Rural Midwest

Gloria Delany-Barmann

The other day I had the honor of working with some graduate students in Public/Community Health. They had invited me to speak to their Journal Club, where a group of them meet regularly to discuss research articles. Part of the agreement was that I was to send them a research article so that we could have a discussion. So, I sent them one that I just read titled "Rural English Learner Education: A Review of Research and Call for a National Agenda," by University of Florida Professor María Coady. 

What struck me when I met the students was that every single one of them was multilingual, and from another country. They speak languages such as Hausa, Yoruba, Hindi, Ibo, Telugu, and of course, English. Now, you may not have heard of some of these languages, but let me tell you, there are millions of speakers of them, some of whom live in the United States. What might come as a surprise to you, is that many of these languages can be heard in your own community and in your child’s school. 

If I were to ask you how many languages are spoken by students in Illinois schools, what would you say? Now, if I were in a classroom I would pause, let you think about it, and then share your thoughts with the person next to you. Did you say 5? 17? 105? All of these are answers I frequently get when I ask this question. The answer is 172 different languages, and all of the languages previously mentioned are on that list. In fact, Illinois is the 5th most linguistically diverse state in the nation, and has held this position for many decades. The number of languages in our state has continually increased since the Illinois State Board of Education began publishing these statistics in 1999. In the last 5 years alone, the number has grown by 22. 

We might think that linguistic diversity is something that only exists in urban areas, but the fact is that, of the 5 million English Learners (ELs) in K-12 schools, there are about 600,000 ELs that attend schools in rural areas. They live in places like Beardstown, Monmouth, Rushville, to name a few.

As scholars Lichter, Parisi, & Taquino (2016) note “They provide an economic and demographic lifeline to rural communities, countering long term trends of out migration and overall population decrease.” They buy houses, food, shop locally, pay taxes, and often work in jobs that are some of most physically demanding and risky, even when there is not a pandemic.

They also support the communities abroad from where they come, infusing important dollars to help build infrastructure and sustain families.

Their jobs are not only risky because of the physical nature of the work and the 12-hour shifts, but also due to raids on their places of work, which can ultimately place them in the extremely dangerous position of being deported back to a community where they are no longer safe or able to eke out a living. 

As I was talking with the students about the numbers of ELs in rural areas and the importance of understanding the challenges and opportunities rural ELs bring to educational settings, their professor, Dr. Bezold, asked them to consider how this topic relates to them as public health professionals. Having all grown up in multilingual settings, they immediately made the connections. It’s essential that we provide information to people in a language that they understand. This is of the utmost importance when we are talking about keeping communities safe in a pandemic.

Likewise, it’s critical when we are talking to parents about their child’s education. This has become abundantly clear this past year as many parents became increasingly responsible for their children’s education.  

Understanding, protecting, and supporting linguistic diversity in our communities is essential in our world if we are to thrive. We all lose when we lose a language (in fact, a language dies about every 2 weeks) and we have so much to gain from cultivating linguistic diversity in our rural schools and communities.

Anthropologist, Wade Davis, reminds us “A language is a flash of the human spirit. It's a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

The hopeful promise of linguistic diversity, is that it breathes fresh life, new ways of knowing and seeing the world, and new economies into the world and our classrooms. The students that I spoke with on Friday are living proof of that hope. And for that, I am thankful. 

Gloria Delany-Barmann is a Professor of Bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) Education at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.