Deficit thinking as it relates to multilingual learners in international schools comes from a lens of overcoming what is not part of an expected norm: non-English proficiency in an English-language learning environment. Discussions are saturated with descriptions and diagnoses of all that is wrong with new-to-English students. How many advocates for multilingual learners have found themselves counteracting negative statements about what these students don’t possess or can’t do with evidentiary proof of successes only to continue hearing about students’ low English, numerous errors, and strong accents or, worse, infuriating questions such as, “Why is the school continuing to accept so many low English learners who pull our standards down?” What can be especially insidious is that once a developing proficiency in English is connected to a lack of academic ability or achievement, schools might overlook multilingual learners’ funds of knowledge, relegating them to view themselves as incapable.
Rather than focus on perceived deficits, a question to ask could be, “What strengths do multilingual learners bring and how could we build on these?” The asset-based stance recognizes and promotes multilingual learners’ linguistic and cultural strengths with the expectation of full proficiency in two or more languages. The fact that students possess the attributes which enable them to thrive in different-language schooling environments is the foundation for the strengths’ perspective. Instead of “they can’t,” advocates say, “not yet.” Instead of looking at non-English proficiency as a problem, believers see multiple languages as an expanded repertoire of communicative resources. To quote Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.”
A Look at Deficit Thinking
Insisting on the negative attributes ascribed to non-English proficiency coupled with the reductionist language used to describe “language-minority” students from English-speaking countries in the academic literature over the decades, may lead some to similarly construct a deficit mindset regarding language-majority multilingual learners in international schools. Teachers worry that they are not learning English fast enough or well enough or are silent for too long, often leading to further diagnoses of, “I think there is something else going on besides the English problem” or “She doesn’t have any language at all.” Deficit mindsets like these persist when teachers or school leaders focus on problems rather than potential which then lead to the implementation of policies, programs, and pedagogical practices which “support these students’ language and learning needs” (Huckle, 2022; Zacarian et al, 2020).
Seeing an Asset-Based Paradigm
Researchers draw attention to the benefits of moving from a deficit- to an asset-based approach. One study points out that, “focusing on people’s strengths—that is, what they already possess inherently or have learned and experienced—can lead to far greater academic and social-emotional success than does focusing on what we perceive as their weaknesses” (Zacarian et al., 2020, p. 1). Another study affirms that, “education policies and programmes that actively promote multilingualism as an asset and apply a “can do” philosophy to learner assessment are creating a tangible shift in the way that languages are perceived and valued, moving away from a monolingual, ‘English only’ mindset to a more flexible approach which encourages linguistic diversity in the classroom” (Cleave, 2020, p. 10).
Although asset-based awareness is less frequent, many school leaders and teachers are sharing examples of their own “light bulb” moments when they start thinking and talking about the linguistic and academic achievements of so many multilingual learners in their schools. This encourages shifts in attitudes and energy, whereby teachers move from seeing a new arrival with no English as a problem to seeing them as a capable learner with skills and assets to build on. Alongside training and resources, this shift creates a change in the way language education is conceptualized in schools. Above all, this approach serves as an important reminder that multilingualism is associated with high attainment once certain levels of proficiency are achieved in English and other languages (Cleave, 2020, p. 20).
What Can We Do?
Operating within an asset-based paradigm, we can ensure that multilingual learners see themselves as learners whose language learning is simply one component of their wholistic selves, rather than interpreting it as a defining characteristic of their identities as students (Webster & Lu, 2012, p. 93). Indeed, a shift in terminology for referring to students, moving away from English learners and adopting multilingual learners, is not a simple name change. It highlights the fact that learning English is no longer the defining characteristic for these students; the fact that they are learners of science, math, social studies, language arts, etc. and are multilingual, better represents who they are as students. To rid our schools of deficit thinking, we must broaden our perspectives, develop deeper understandings of bilingualism and second language acquisition, adopt a growth vs. fixed mindset, and edit our deficit language and legacies in professional discussions and in written policies.
Gathering data to document multilingual learners’ proficiencies in their home languages steers us away from equating limited English proficiency with a lack of capacity for academic achievement and away from remedial practices like simplifying materials or modifying tasks. Instructionally, we can leverage multilingual learners’ strengths, unlock their potentials, and tap into their assets. The assets-based path to improvement starts by asking questions such as: How can I access students’ strengths? How can I make connections with students’ other languages and cultures? How will multilingual learners know that we know what they are capable of? In these ways, we seek to “amplify the talents, spirits, and personal powers of multilingual learners” (Honigsfeld et al 2021, p. 14).
At the school level, we can rethink the placement of EAL programming. Rather than pairing EAL with student support services, as is often done, EAL can join forces with world languages. Doing so can improve language teaching across the school as both professions continue to shift away from teaching about language towards enhancing learners’ understanding of how language works to make and communicate meaning. Ultimately, EAL and world language teaching share the goal of proficiency in another language which opens opportunities for academic success and future careers. To participate fully in a globalized and interconnected world, all learners in international schools should have the opportunity to gain real proficiency in multiple languages, and those who achieve this could be formally acknowledged and rewarded for developing fluency and literacy skills in more than one language. Initiatives like The Global Seal of Biliteracy could be considered as a model.
Finally, some researchers go beyond the dichotomous deficit vs. asset perspective, arguing that the opposite of a deficit lens is in fact a structural or equity lens. Whereas deficit and asset lenses both often focus on the individual, the equity lens focuses on the systems and structures within which that individual is placed. Taking an equity lens is the first step towards building more equitable schools that are systemically and structurally designed to enable multilingual learners to flourish. To do this is to treat “language education as a social justice issue” (Cleave, 2020, p. 10).
The demographic and sociolinguistic profiles of international schools reveal that they can be said to be both English-speaking and multilingual or, in most of their cases, more multilingual than only English. What this means is that the English-deficit EAL model needs to be repositioned within an asset-based paradigm, one that conceives of all languages and cultures as assets. If there is a problem to be fixed, it is the need for international school communities to appreciate that they have ‘both’ multilingual-learning majority populations ‘and’ high-achieving English-proficient multilinguals.
Cleave E (2020) Language, education and social justice: International strategies for systems change in multilingual schools. Available at: https://www.bell-foundation.org.uk/app/uploads/2020/06/Churchill-Report-2020-FV-web.pdf.
Honigsfeld AM, Dove MG, Cohan A et al. (2021) From Equity Insights to Action: Critical Strategies for Teaching Multilingual Learners. London: Corwin.
Huckle, J. (2022). Equity and English as an additional language: Looking beyond deficit and asset lenses, Equity and English as an additional language: Looking beyond deficit and asset lenses : My College (chartered.college).
Webster, N. L., & Lu, C. (2012). English language learners: An analysis of perplexing ESL-related terminology, Language and Literacy, 14(3), 83-94./ (PDF) “English Language Learners”: An Analysis of Perplexing ESL-Related Terminology (researchgate.net).
Zacarian, D., Staehr Fenner D., & Alpert, D. (2020). From deficit-based to assets-based thinking: Breaking down the wall one essential shift a time, Language Magazine, From Deficit-Based to Assets-Based: Breaking Down the Wall One Essential Shift at a Time - Language Magazine.
Dr. Virginia Rojas currently teaches the EAL certification program in partnership with the Principal’s Training Center (https://www.theptc.org/eal-training-center). Before semi-retiring, Dr. Rojas was a faculty member for the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and a language education consultant for over 350 international schools. She was inducted into the AAIE Hall of Fame in 2016.