A collaborative research project of RISLUS and the Ph.D Program in Urban Education

Our Vision

City University of New York – New York State

Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals


Vision statement

Emergent Bilinguals: Emergence, Dynamic Bilingualism, and Dynamic Development


Emergent Bilinguals

CUNY-NYSIEB focuses on improving the education of emergent bilingual students in New York State. These students are often referred to as English Language Learners. In New York State they are designated as such by the Language Assessment Battery-Revised (LAB-R) initially, and the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) thereafter.

We refer to these students as emergent bilinguals because, in learning English, they are becoming bilingual and thus joining the growing ranks of American bilinguals in New York State and elsewhere. We consider bilingualism as the desired norm for all American students and not as the exceptional quality of a few. That is, we view bilingualism and biliteracy as an asset that all students in New York State should possess to meet the demands of the 21st century. Furthermore, our use of the term emergent bilinguals conceptualizes these students as much more than learners of English only, since they are developing proficiency and literacy in academic English from the base of home language practices. Furthermore, the term emergent bilinguals acknowledges that the education of these students must go beyond simply English language learning, to include a challenging curriculum in the content areas that also meets their social and emotional needs.


In focusing on the emergence of the students’ bilingualism, we are naming our educational philosophy regarding language and literacy development, as well as education. This philosophy holds that bilingual development is not linear but emergent, and that it is dependent on the relationship of students with other people and texts, as well as their relationship with the learning environment. Under this philosophy, educators must provide the affordances and opportunities that are needed for new language practices and understandings to emerge. In this view, a speaker never has a language, but simply uses or performs a language. It is when the right affordances are provided that student languaging emerges, as students also construct new knowledge and understandings.

Dynamic Bilingualism

This emergent view of language and literacy education is consonant with our view that bilingualism is dynamic, and not simply additive. In our global world, bilingual practices reflect the language user’s adaptation to specific communicative situations and to the communicative resources provided by others. A bilingual speaker is thus never a fully balanced bilingual. Rather, what bilingual speakers do is to language bilingually, or to translanguage, in order to make meaning from the complex interactions that are enacted by different human beings and texts in our globalized world. Translanguaging refers to the use of a learner’s full linguistic repertoire to make sense of the rich content that is being communicated. In this dynamic bilingualism view, new language practices only emerge in interrelationship with old language practices. Together they constitute a flexible linguistic repertoire that bilingual students use in order to meet their communicative and academic needs, including literacy in standard academic English and the learning of challenging new content.

Dynamic Development

The dynamism of the fluid language practices performed by emergent bilingual students leads us to shed rigid distinctions between native or first languages and second languages, distinctions that have tended to obscure thinking about bilingualism, bilingual acquisition, and language education. For example, we reject the common proposition that is so common in “second language” acquisition studies that emergent bilingual students have a “first” language that is used solely at home and that, depending on one’s position, needs to be shed or maintained, plus a “second” language, namely English, that is used in school.

Instead, we assert that the language practices of American bilingual children include, flexibly and simultaneously, features of languages other than English, as well as English. Our educational philosophy engages bilingual children with their entire range of language practices, including those associated with academic English, as their very own. For bilingual children to successfully perform academically in English, schools support a multilingual context that recognizes the language and cultural practices of bilingual children as an important part of the school’s learning community.


CUNY-NYSIEB Principles and Practices:

Carrying out Emergence, Dynamic Bilingualism and Dynamic Development

Schools that adopt the CUNY-NYSIEB dynamic bilingual philosophy to educate emergent bilinguals adhere to two principles and practices: (1) a multilingual ecology for the whole school, and (2) bilingualism as a resource in education.

1. Support of a multilingual ecology for the whole school

Under this philosophy, the entire range of language practices of all children and families are evident in the school’s textual landscape, as well as in the interactions of all members of the school community. That is, in addition to English, the other languages of the school are visible and palpable, represented in signs throughout the school, in texts in the library and classrooms, and heard throughout in conversations. Furthermore, the students’ language practices and cultural understandings are used in all classrooms as resources for deeper thinking, clearer imagining, greater learning, and academic languaging. This extends beyond the language practices of emergent bilinguals to include those of all students.

2. Bilingualism as a resource in education

Regardless of program structure; that is, whether the program is called English as a second language (ESL) or bilingual, the home language practices of emergent bilingual students are not only recognized but leveraged as a crucial instructional tool and, to the greatest extent possible, nurtured and developed. The entire linguistic repertoire of emergent bilingual children is used flexibly and strategically in instruction in order to engage the children cognitively, academically, emotionally and creatively. Accordingly, all educators, whether they are general education, ESL or bilingual teachers, build upon the students’ home language and cultural practices in instruction in strategic ways, as an essential tool for language learning and education in general.

In embracing these CUNY-NYSIEB principles and practices, schools cast away the monolingual and monocultural ideologies of the past that have limited the ability of schools to meet the academic, emotional and social needs of emergent bilinguals. Instead, schools support the emergence of students’ dynamic bilingual development in order to become fully educated.

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