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Professor Elena Sada joins research team on dual language education

Published on February 16, 2021

Professor Elena Sada joins research team on dual language education

Elena Sada, associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State UniversityOne day when Elena Sada, associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University, was in a store in a Connecticut town, her 6-year-old son said, “Mommy, don’t speak to me in Spanish; they are going to think we are poor.” Sada was horrified and immediately told her son: “No, sweetie, they are going to think we are smart.”

Sada, who has spent most of her career as a school district supervisor while also conducting research on bilingual learning, believes that dual language education plays a critical role in counteracting bias toward non-English speakers. “This is an example of the effects that bias has toward cultural and linguistically diverse students,” said Sada. “The message being transmitted is that their bilingual identity is a sign of deficit — of what they have not yet accomplished, which is English mastery and mainstream assimilation. While having one common language is essential, the vision that bilingualism is a threat or inferior fosters the stigma that bilinguals are a threat or inferior.” 

Sada said that while most people who can speak more than one language are generally considered to be smart, her son’s comment reflects the common identification of upper-income status with monolingualism. This may hinder a minority student’s ability to see their background as an asset, putting their academic success at risk. “Languages and cultures are wrongfully presented within a dichotomy of superiority versus inferiority. This damages students’ self-image and peer perceptions, which can affect their sense of belonging and academic success.”

Sada said dual language schools teach the curriculum of all subjects using two languages in a meaningful and strategic way, so students reach high academic standards as well as bilingualism — mastery of English and an added language. These programs are becoming popular because research has shown their superiority over monolingual programs.

Sada’s expertise and scholarship on the need for socio-cultural competence in schools is why she was asked to be part a team of researchers at the University of Connecticut to “Reimagine Dual Language Education.” The university has been awarded a $179,000 federal grant to improve the ability of dual language programs to promote the equitable bilingualism and biliteracy development of all students through a greater focus on sociocultural competence.

Sada’s primary responsibilities are to support the development of a measure of sociocultural competence through a review of related literature in year one, and to support the data collection through focus groups among educators and other learning community activities with teachers, in years two and three.

Sada explained that the research project will focus on upper-elementary dual language students and teachers in an urban school district; will entail working with teachers to create and implement pedagogical strategies to foster sociocultural competence development within the context of language and literacy instruction; and will investigate the relationship between sociocultural competence and the development of bilingualism and biliteracy.

Sada says the Dual Language Teacher Preparation program at Eastern can benefit tremendously from the analysis and synthesis of the findings of hundreds of studies on sociocultural competence that this research entails. “The more we empower dual language schools to improve cultural competence among students and teachers, the more our pre-service and in-service teachers will be able to join a workforce that affirms intersectional identities among students and teachers. This will improve perseverance, effectiveness and happiness among teachers with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.”

Sada said dual language education strives to reimagine languages and positively connect them to identity, strengthening individual’s emotional development as well as their participation in a pluralistic society. “Dual language education is meant to be the ideal platform where students can develop holistically, in an environment where bilingualism is seen as an asset and multicultural perspectives can be strengthened. However, in order to be true to its essence, dual language programs must focus on their sociocultural competence goals, as much as they focus on the academic and linguistic goals.”

Written by Dwight Bachman