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What's in a Home-Language Survey?


I've taken note over the years of the odd phenomenon that some children who are Native Americans and speak only English are identified as English-language learners.

This is how it happens. Schools are required by federal law to give parents a home-language survey when they enroll their children in school. In Indian Country, parents are likely to say on the survey that an indigenous language is spoken at home, even though it may be spoken only by a grandmother, or hardly spoken by anyone. But if they do answer the home-language survey in that way, schools are required to test the English proficiency of the child. If the child doesn't do well on the test, he or she becomes an "English-language learner."

So when I went out to the Navajo Nation last week to write about a Navajo immersion school, I expected to find some English-language learners in the school. But I was wrong.The Navajo immersion school in Fort Defiance, Ariz., which is part of the Window Rock Unified School District, doesn't have any English-language learners at all. In fact, only about 200 of the 2,900 students in the whole district have been identified as English-language learners, according to Jennifer Wilson, the federal projects coordinator for the district.

Ms. Wilson told me in an interview I was conducting for Education Week that the numbers of English-language learners on the Navajo Nation dropped dramatically after the questions in the home-language survey for Arizona were simplified after passage of Proposition 203, a state ballot measure that aimed to get rid of bilingual education, in November 2000. She said that the wording of the questions and how parents answer the questions make a big difference in whether children are tested in English proficiency or not.

In Arizona, the three questions in the home-language survey aim to determine what is the primary language spoken in the home. If the primary language of a family is English, though the family may also speak a lot of Navajo at home, the child will never be tested on his or her English-language proficiency. In neighboring New Mexico, by contrast, the home-language survey recommended by the state department of education emphasizes what language or languages are commonly spoken to the child.

Ms. Wilson indicated that because of Proposition 203, there is another reason that the Navajo immersion school doesn't have any English-language learners. Proposition 203 permits schools to provide bilingual education only to children who are already proficient in English, who are 10 years or older, or who have special needs. So apparently Navajo parents have gotten the word, she said, that if they are careful to say that English is the primary language in the home, they don't run the risk of their child being labeled as an English-language learner--and being barred from the immersion school.

Back in 2000, I wrote about Native Americans' concerns about Proposition 203. I invite any of you out there in Indian Country to give me an update.


The Home Language Survey is easily misinterpreted when looking at the home languages used in bilingual homes. As a Bilingual and ESL Specialist in New York City, I can tell you that there is a missing piece from the description in the blog: the informal interview. I do not know whether other states require it as part of the process of identifying the English language learner, but it is required in New York. The process goes like this:
1. Parent/Guardian fills out the Home Language Identification Survey (HLIS). The suggested policy is that preferably the HLIS would be filled out in the presence of the school's specialist, who would help the person understand it's purpose, etc. (Most of the time, in NYC the physical presence of the specialist is not possible at every registration, due to the sheer volume of registrants and the other resposibilites we hold.)
2. Once the specialist receives the HLIS form, it has to be interpreted. Most newly arrived immigrants and students from homes where a language other than English is the primary or only language fill them out in ways that provide no room for doubt about the need for identification testing. Bilingual families on the other hand, will have very mixed results. That is why there is an informal interview, done by the specialist who can determine whether or not the child demonstrates the linguisitic signs of being in the process of the development of English as a second language. This informal interview is done with all students whose form indicates a language other than English used in the home, unless it is so minimally indicated, that it is clear the student is not an ELL. If there is still doubt about the child's needs after this, the general advice is to call the home and have a conversation with the parents, get input from the teachers (although, identification is done quickly, so teachers most of the time do not yet know the students). Usually this last part is not necessary, but it is a last resort.
3. If upon interview the student is still deemed in need of the identification testing, then the test is given. The test determines whether or not the child is acquiring English at a level below that which is needed for school learning without ESL. If the interview shows clearly that the HLIS did not reflect the child's proficiency in English accurately, no testing should be done and the HLIS determination is "NO".
The use of the HLIS to facilitate the achievenment of political goals is possible, unfortunately because the process' successful completion depends upon the professionalism of the person doing the identification. This person has to act in an informed, ethical and legal manner when performing his or her duties. A school administration which employs someone who is poorly prepared, uncommitted to the educational rights of the children, uninformed about the research regarding bilingualism, the characteristics of bilingual individuals, and the results of bilingual education for the educational success of students may be politically motivated to make decisions within the process of identifying ELLs, which influence the entire school and its programs. Also, schools which do not employ sufficient numbers of qualified personnel to carry out identification among thousands of students will have irregularities also.
Nevertheless, I find that when carried out appropriately, the identification process works well.

Juliet Luther
Bilingual Educator/ESL Specialist

Interesting finding.
As a Navajo scholar I would also take into account the loss of language as a factor. All indigenious languages are facing huge language loss.

Mary Ann, thank you for your interest in Native American English Language Learners, but I am concerned about the fact that you question children who are Native Americans and speak only English identified as English-language learners and refer to it as an “odd phenomena”. I have included the definition of “limited English proficient” (LEP) from Title IX of the No Child Left Behind below. According to the information provided by the Title III Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) English Language Learner (ELL) can be used for limited English proficient students. http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oela/index.html?src=mr
Please note that in this definition, a student, including Native Americans, is considered LEP or ELL, if the student “comes from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency.” In today’s world where students need to be fully proficient in all domains of academic English, students who are not fully proficient due to the influence of another language is not necessarily an odd phenomena, but rather a realistic educational need.
In fact few ELLs in the nation’s schools fit the stereotype of an ELL who is fluent in a home language and does not speak English. The majority of ELLs, including Native American ELLs, have varying degrees of proficiency in both languages and many would report English as their language. North Dakota schools are currently enrolling immigrant students from Liberia. English is the official language in Liberia. The parents report English as their language on various forms they fill out. In fact, there are a variety of tribal languages that the Liberians speak or understand. The students are definitely not proficient in the academic English needed for America’s classrooms. They may have a passive or limited understanding of the tribal language and speak a dialectical form of English influenced by the tribal language. This situation is very similar to the Native American populations in our nation. Likewise, students from a Latino heritage in our nation may have some understanding of both Spanish and English, with proficiency in neither.
Home Language Surveys may be helpful, but do not always pick up on a student’s actual language needs. Reporting English on a home language survey by a parent does not at all mean that there is not another language in the home. There are many reasons in this current political environment why a parent may be report only English. It also does not necessarily mean the student is proficient in English. It does not necessarily mean that another language is not used in the home community. Despite what is reported, or not reported by parents, school districts still have a responsibility, according to federal law, to determine the actual language needs of the students and address them through educational services.
Native American ELLs compose a large population in North Dakota and many western states. Please help us with in meeting the needs of this group of students by conveying appropriate information.
Mari Rasmussen
North Dakota
LEP Students:
The term “limited English proficient”, which is defined in section 9101 of Title IX when used with respect to an individual, means an individual -
(A) who is aged 3 through 21;
(B) who is enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary school or secondary school;
(C)(i) who was not born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than English;
(ii)(I) who is a Native American or Alaska Native, or a native resident of the outlying areas; and
(II) who comes from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency; or
(iii) who is migratory, whose native language is a language other than English, and who comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant; and
(D) whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual -
(i) the ability to meet the State’s proficient level of achievement on State assessments described in section 1111(b)(3);
(ii) the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; or
(iii) the opportunity to participate fully in society.
No Child Left Behind Act, 2001

I would like to comment to M Rasmussen's statement. As a parent of four children in Tsehootsooi Dine Bi'olta - the Navajo Immersion school and the Federal Projects coordinator in Window Rock USD I am VERY well aware of the NCLB quotes regarding ELLs, etc.

However there are some other federal laws that play an important role in this issue: Navajo treaty of 1869 and the Native American languages Act.

What has happended in ARizona is that our state department of Education and Educational Statutes have put in place policy that no child can be in a bilingual program if they are ELL. The only legal program choice in our state is Structured English Immersion - English Only. For immigrants that may (or may not) be the best program choice. However, when it comes to Native American Children from traty holding tribes there is a completely unique element of tribal sovererignty and the right of native people to ensure thier language and culture are passed to each generation.

The unique relationship between the federal government and tribes in regard to Native language and culture is stated in both the Native languages act and in Title VII and Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act.

To say that children who come from communites where another language impacts them should be the basis for designating them ELL in Arizona is to deniy those same children the right to instruction through thier Native languages.

The overall fact is that there is no danger of Navajo children NOT learning English. English is everywhere on the NAvajo reservation, and all children speak English.

The danger is the shift of language use from Navajo to English that is taking place. In the community of Fort Defiance the amount of students entering Kindgergarten in 1979 speaking Navajo was 98%. By 1989 that changed to on 3% entering the school district speaking Navajo.

I encourage anyone wanting to know more about the success of the Nvajo immerison school to read the special issue of the Journal of American Indian Education published last spring with an article entitled 'Tsehootsooi Dine Bi'olta' (through Arizona State University, Center for Indian Educaiton).

And remeber, that the NAvajo language is not spoken in any other country in the world. It is the foundation of the Navajo culture and way of life. Government operated/funded educational systems forced to removal of the language from generations of Navajo children. Now the public education system is being used support the revitalization/maintainance of Navajo for the next generation of Navajo children.

Do you recommend bilingual education at all, and in which situations if the student knows enough English? My daughter is in Kindergarten in a private school (no bilingual programs offered) her English have improved a lot since May of last year when she was in summer camp at the same school. Next year school offer ELL, what do you think? It would be a good idea to be in any kind of bilingual program or not if she is speaking English all day at this time.

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