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Patricia Gándara: New Book Highlights Advantages of Bilingualism

In her new book, “The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy and the U.S. Labor Market,” (With R. M. Callahan. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2014), Patricia Gándara illustrates that literacy in more than one language is now an asset in educational success and the job market. Based on a series of empirical studies, the book demonstrates that academic achievement, college aspirations, and employment potential are all enhanced for those who speak and are literate in another language particularly the emerging Latina/o population.

Gándara, a research professor of education in the Urban Schooling Division of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, says that although her research included other ethnic groups, what was unique to Spanish-speaking students was the fact that they were more likely to attend four-year colleges if they maintained their bilingualism through high school.

“That, I think, is a very interesting finding,” she says. “As I wrote about in “The Latino Education Crisis,” we have this horrendous problem that we’re not getting many Latinos through college with a degree. A lot of them are going somewhere – usually to community college or a non-selective college. But very few ever graduate and get a degree.

“The research shows that the best chances of getting a degree are if you go to a four-year university and don’t have to transfer. That’s associated with being bilingual and biliterate at the point of graduation.”

Studies for “The Bilingual Advantage” also showed that bilinguals were more likely to be hired than those who only spoke only one language. Gándara says that in the past, U.S. economists had shown that not only did bilinguals not have an advantage in the labor market, but that they often suffered a penalty for being bilingual.

“In the past, these studies have always generally been done with census data, and census data are inadequate to answer these kinds of questions,” she says. “Very little is [evident] through census data about a person’s degree of fluency or literacy in both languages. In the census, people will tell you if they speak another language, but you won’t know if they write or read it. Even if a person says they speak two languages, if they speak one poorly, and the other with an accent, they may have a very different experience in the labor market than someone who is very fluent and reads and writes in both languages. Our researchers in several cases used different data sets to assess how well subjects spoke two languages and whether they were biliterate or not.”

Gándara also underscores the fact that the changing American demographic has a direct influence on the value of bilingualism today.

“Thirty years ago, if you were entering the labor market as a bilingual, it may not have been as valuable,” she says. “Today, with the demographic shifts in our society, it has become increasingly so.”

Professor Gándara, who is the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyectos Derechos Civiles at UCLA, says that acceptance of bilingualism and/or multilingualism in the United States would potentially help speakers of other languages achieve more equity and economic mobility in society.

What [an acceptance of] bilingualism does is that it makes it an asset,” she says. “Our education policy around language minority kids has largely been deficit-oriented, with the idea that these kids have a problem. We need to fix this problem and put them in remedial courses, and like how Arizona is doing it, we have to spend four hours a day drilling them in English to get rid of this problem.’

“But in a bilingual world, in which people think in terms of this as being the norm, these kids can be viewed as advantaged; as having an asset they can share with others and build upon. This will ultimately lead them to graduate high school at higher rates, go to college at higher rates, and with certain groups of students, go on to four-year colleges at higher rates.”

Among Gándara’s many research interests are educational equity and access for low income and ethnic minority students, language policy, and the education of Mexican origin youth. For several years, she has been directing a project entitled SOL (Secondary Online Learning) that is dedicated to producing bilingual, online, open access and common core aligned secondary curriculum so that high school students in both English and Spanish speaking contexts can complete the courses they need to graduate high school prepared for postsecondary education. Gándara is also chair of the University of California’s Mexico Working Group on Education, a UC systemwide group dedicated to forging closer ties with Mexico around shared issues in education.

This summer, Gándara took part in a meeting with colleagues from across campus and Mexican Consul General Carlos M. Sada to discuss the need for greater collaboration between the Mexican government and UCLA in various areas including education, health, and urban planning. Professor Gándara shared her perspectives on building stronger ties between educational systems in the U.S. and Mexico, in view of the large number of children and youth who have experienced schooling on both sides of the border. She says that failure to do so would result in “disastrous” results for local, national, and global economies.

The Civil Rights Project is engaged in a project right now called the LASANTI Project (the LA, SAN Diego, and TIjuana project), tracking the educational and opportunity levels in this large region,” says Professor Gándara. “It’s an enormously important area for the nation and for the world. It is the biggest market on the Pacific coast, bringing two nations together. And yet, the education levels there are dropping. That is a disaster for both Mexico and the U.S., for California, in particular.

“We’re seeing a decline in average education in the area, which is no doubt related to the fact that many of these young people’s aspirations and expectations are formed by experiences in education systems outside the US. If their parents went to school in another system, where there was a different compulsory education age, where there were different expectations about education and employment and perhaps fewer opportunities, this is inconsistent with the expectations here,” says Gándara. “We need the education level to increase in this area if we’re going to keep up globally, and this is true for both Mexico and the U.S. We are in this together.”



Photo by Andres Cuervo