A few weeks ago, I attended a report release at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C. on best practices for educating children who are learning English. These reports are published after a preeminent group of experts reviews the evidence and reaches a consensus, so I knew it would be interesting. Slide 2 of the presentation was more than interesting – it was mind-boggling.
Indiana has the second-fastest growing population of school-aged children whose native language is not English (among states that have experienced a 200 percent growth in non-native speakers) . These students are known as “dual language learners” (DLLs), although they are more commonly referred to as “ELLs” (“English language learners”) in many school districts. My mouth fell open.
My mind wandered back to a moment last December when I caught the afternoon non-stop from Miami to Indianapolis. It was a small plane, and the passengers were lined up along the wall of the jet bridge waiting for our suitcases. A young woman exited the plane and asked in Spanish where to get her stroller. An American Airlines representative who greeted our plane turned to the line and shouted “Does anyone speak Spanish?!?” A few of us chuckled and winked at one another. Everyone spoke Spanish. However, we were Floridians and this was Indiana – a state where the last census recorded 93.3 percent of the population as non-Hispanic or Latino.
Back at the report release, the audience considered slide after slide of evidence that the demographic, linguistic, and cultural landscape of the United States is changing. Currently, Indiana ranks second on the list of states experiencing drastic population increases of DLLs since 1997. Moreover, 72 percent of DLLs are birthright citizens. As a behavioral and social scientist, I felt giddy. The political, sociolinguistic, and policy implications of this population shift are a researcher’s dream. As a teacher of future speech pathologists at Indiana University, however, I am well aware of the shortage of bilingual speech/language therapists to help children with language disorders.
Where do we find talented, experienced professionals with the unique skill-set to deliver services to DLLs? At present, there are 50 graduate speech pathology programs that incorporate bilingual service delivery models as part of their curriculum. Fortunately, Indiana has one such program – the Spanish-English bilingual STEPS program here at Indiana University, Bloomington. STEPS, more formally known as the “Speech Therapy Education, Practicum, and Services” program, is funded by the U.S. Department of Education “to prepare qualified students to provide appropriate speech-language services to young Latinos and their families, particularly in public school settings.” While not all Hoosier students speak Spanish as a first language, most recent data suggest that 41 percent of DLLs are of Mexican heritage, compared to only 4.5 percent are of Chinese heritage.
Students who enter the field as bilingual speech pathologists will face enormous challenges in keeping up with the needs of a rapidly-growing population that requires the same type of early interventions as English-only children. How to recruit and train qualified bilingual service providers to work in traditionally monolingual areas (like Indiana) is a complex issue. Indiana University has an opportunity to lead this effort by proactively spearheading efforts to promote language development in all Hoosier children.
 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. “Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures.” (Washington D.C.: National Academies Press, 2017). Available: https://www.nap.edu/download/24677# [Accessed March 13th, 2017].