Shared Languages Enhances Our Culture, Requires Above-Board Effort From All

Last Updated by Terri Morris Downs on

In many Central Indiana school districts, student enrolment is on the rise. With this growth, schools have become more diverse, and educators are working to find ways to serve growing populations of English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Check back to  learn from local educators, organizations, and professionals about about why this matters, understand what is being done in our community to support this population of students, and identify ways you can help, as a part of WFYI's October American Graduate blog series around supports for English language learners.


A global city speaks many languages. Ours, comprised of 120 nationalities, speaks more than 90. While there are many societal benefits of multiculturalism, our society has historically left the work of integration to the new arrivals. Newcomers to Indianapolis must first face the daunting task of finding new jobs, safe housing, reliable transportation, health care and education; basic needs that can only be navigated through a shared language.

For 10 years the Immigrant Welcome Center has been on the front lines, connecting immigrants to services to meet these basic needs, and providing orientation programs as they settle in to the city. Our Natural Helper volunteers, who are immigrants themselves, know first-hand how difficult it can be to interact without first learning and mastering the English language. There are countless online resources available for learning English as well as many ESL resources in the city.

An estimated 13,000 young immigrants enter our schools each year, and our schools bear the brunt of the responsibility to teach English to our newest and youngest residents. Language courses that were barely needed a few years ago are in full demand today.

A collective challenge

Funding and adapting language programs for schools takes time and time hasn’t been on our side. The Migration Policy Institute ranks Indianapolis the ninth fastest growing immigrant population in the country. With 8% of our population of foreign origin, Indianapolis is the most diverse it has ever been. As these numbers continue to grow schools have had to adapt quickly to address the language and cultural barriers of immigrant and refugee schoolchildren.

Debate for every dollar to fund and improve school-based language programs continues. Only a collective and personal commitment from our entire community, government officials, administrators, parents and children, after-school-care and summer programs, and community centers, will enable students to quickly and effectively learn English and succeed in the classroom.

Increase language learning outside of the classroom

Kathleen Lattimer, a Natural Helper, taught foreign languages and English at North Central High School for 37 years and appreciates the importance of a community approach to language learning.

Washington Township uses a mix of paid aids and volunteers to extend study hours every day after school. Even with these resources available at school, Kathleen went beyond her Natural Helpers responsibilities, as many of our volunteers do, and found an English-speaking native Swahili speaker to meet with a non-English speaking student once a week for additional lessons.

There are others in the community doing their part, too, from churches that offer ESL classes to neighborhood groups that encourage young students through activities and sports.

Kathleen also recommends Comcast’s Internet Essentials program as a way to bridge the academic divide caused by the internet gap. Residents with a child on free or reduced school lunch are eligible for low-cost internet service and a deeply discounted computer so students can finish assignments and the whole family can access language learning programs and games.

Build understanding and respect

Even with these tools in place, it can still take up to five years for a student to become proficient in English. So, we must ask ourselves, how can we welcome immigrants and respect their accomplishments?

As part of the Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network, the Immigrant Welcome Center’s program, Welcoming Indianapolis, has access to tools and case studies of what’s working in other cities. One of seven programs in the WE Global Network’s Ideas that Innovate report offers a simple, low-cost way to encourage students to pursue language acquisition.

Introduced in California in 2008, the Seal of Biliteracy recognizes students who have attained proficiency in two or more languages with a gold seal on their transcript or diploma. In 2012, more than 10,000 graduating high school students in California earned this distinction and could point to the seal as evidence of language skills that are attractive to employers and college admissions offices.

Indiana became the third state in the Midwest and ninth in the nation to offer such a program when the Biliteracy Bill was signed into law earlier this month. In the same measure, lawmakers authorized a dual-language immersion pilot program, which will provide simultaneous instruction in two languages to students in elementary school.  

Indiana is moving in the right direction. We applaud the Indiana General Assembly’s action to recognize these students. And yet, more funding for English language learning, for both children and adults, is needed to ensure the Hoosier state’s future success. In addition to a strong commitment of school and government officials, community organizations, teachers, parents and students to teach and learn English language in our schools, we must also keep our eyes open to other cities’ successes and do more to welcome and support immigrants in Indianapolis.

It really is up to each of us. ¿Estamos a este desafío?

What strategies do you know of that are being used to support ELL students? How can we conintue to support students for whom English is their second language? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and on social media using #AmGradIndy.


TerriMorrisDowns.Staff_.jpg Terri Morris Downs is the Executive Director of the Immigrant Welcome Center. More information about Terri and the work of the Immigrant Welcome Center may be found here.

Sponsored By: