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Initiative in St. Paul elevates value of language learned outside of school

Axel Sontegerath, 18, Tin Khin, 20
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Axel Sontegerath, 18, and Tin Khin, 20, have both received formal recognition for being able to speak, read, write and listen in a foreign language that they can present to postsecondary institutions and employers across the nation.

Axel Sontgerath, 18, graduated from St. Paul’s Highland Park Senior High School last week with a bilingual seal in French. The Minneapolis native studied Chinese in school, but he never took a French class. That’s because he learned to speak, read and write in French from his mother, who’s a native speaker.

Translating some of the teaching skills she used at her job working at a French cultural hub in the Twin Cities, she made sure Axel learned proper grammar by sitting down with him and doing dictation drills. In the evening, they’d watch the French news to discuss current events and build fluency. And they’d travel to France to see family every summer — an immersive experience that Axel took full advantage of his freshman year by studying abroad while living with his grandfather.

“Pretty much my entire life I’ve [been] bilingual and never had anything really to show for it, other than I can speak it. But if you’re at a job interview .... they want to see that there’s a certain token,” he said. “I’ll use it as proof that I speak both languages.”

Credential — and intrinsic value

Roughly four miles north, at LEAP High School, Tin Khin, a 20-year-old English Language Learner from Thailand, took a test to earn a bilingual seal in Karen. The incoming senior has only lived in Minnesota for two years, but he’s already mastered English well enough to qualify for the bilingual seal, which recognizes some of the language assets he already had when he arrived here. As a student in a refugee camp, he studied Karen, Burmese and Thai. He says he took the test to gain credentials. But he also sees the personal value in retaining his native language skills.

“It’s not wise to have your language disappear, because if you lose your language, it’s like you lost your identity and your people, your culture,” Khin said, with translation assistance from his uncle.

Thanks to a statewide bilingual seal initiative — which has strong roots in the St. Paul school district — Khin and Sontgerath both received formal recognition for being able to speak, read, write and listen in a foreign language that they can present to postsecondary institutions and employers across the nation. And if they choose to attend any of the colleges and universities of Minnesota State — the state postsecondary system formerly known as “MnSCU” — their seal will earn them credits that could end up saving them thousands in tuition costs. This arrangement is laid out in the Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act, which was passed by state lawmakers in 2014.

New assessments

A number of assessments — for instance, in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese — already existed through the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. However, district staff and community members wanted to expand the opportunity to some of their most marginalized populations. With guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education, they worked over the past two years to create their own assessments in Hmong, Karen and Somali that were more aligned to their immigrant student populations.

“These unsung heroes that wrote the tests were really passionate, dedicated,” says Liz Hathaway Castelán, who leads the district’s dual-language program. “This honors the linguistic and cultural capital that our children bring.”

With the addition of these three new tests, 83 students completed a language assessment this spring to qualify for a bilingual seal.  All but three were either English Language Learners or former English Language Learners. That number doesn’t include those who took an International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) language exam to earn a bilingual seal through a more traditional route.

“It’s one thing for AP and IB to qualify, but these are just giving benefit to kids who already get a lot of the benefits in our education system,” says Mary Ojala, with the district’s office of teaching and learning. “If we don’t have tests for the less commonly taught or spoken languages that are prevalent in our district, then the intent of the legislation has not been carried out.”

New assessments for Ojibwe and Tamil will be piloted next year.

With test results still largely pending, it’s too early to say how everyone fared, or how many college credits it could equate to. Depending on the level of proficiency denoted on their seal — or certificate, which is awarded for those at a less advanced level — students can earn up to four semesters of credit.

Plans for the future

Both Sontgerath and Khin achieved the platinum seal, which is the most advanced. Sontgerath is still waiting to get the results on his Chinese language exam, to see if he qualifies for a multilingual seal. He plans to pair his language skills with a postsecondary degree in diplomacy and international relations so he can pursue a career with the State Department.

Khin says he wants to continue his education and one day become an ELL teacher. His uncle, Lighter Moo, 27, says the seal Khin will receive with his high school diploma can help make that dream a reality.

“I think having this test for students, it will benefit them because if they go to college they don't have to take a [language] course that's not their language,” he said. “They can use their own language because they’re bilingual. They don't have to waste their money. They don’t have to waste their time.”

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Comments (1)

Learning multiple languages

When I arrived in Minnesota in 1955, I didn't speak, read or write American English. People thought I was too strange when I spoke Mandarin Chinese. The school in which I enrolled decided to put me back two grades to learn English. I applaud school districts and higher education for recognizing the value of knowing multiple languages. The U.S. will need many more people with language skills in the future. And the classmates who laughed at me more than 50 years ago? I laugh at them now.