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To teach bilingualism, professor blends languages

To teach bilingualism, professor blends languages

June 17, 2021 at 5:27pm

Let’s get a cortadito. This is a sentence Ryan Pontier would very likely have never spoken growing up in central New Jersey. It is now something he says all of the time as a fluent speaker of Spanish and English.

An assistant professor of bilingual education in the FIU School of Education and Human Development, Pontier knows firsthand that being bilingual is beneficial, if not lifechanging. Language breaks through limits on how someone experiences the world, opening up pathways of connection to other people.

Yet, there is a dilemma when it comes to how bilingualism fits into teaching and is approached in the classroom. The way it works in an everyday setting — where bilingual or multilingual speakers blend different languages together naturally and seamlessly — is not how it’s approached in education.

Pontier researches teacher instructional practices — for teachers in the classroom and students who are training to become teachers — and wants to find methods that empower and support bilingual students. For example, there are existing structures or unwritten rules that seem to contradict or stand in the way of bilingualism, like written assignments must be completed in English. Pontier is questioning and challenging ideas like this.

One of the ways he’s doing this is through the virtual Conference on Emerging Hispanic-Serving School Districts, which was possible because of a grant from the Spencer Foundation. Nearly 100 students, parents, teachers and administrators came together this week to share their personal experiences. The goal is to inform and guide future research on how to support Emerging Hispanic Serving school districts. As Pontier points out, FIU is uniquely positioned — as a Hispanic Serving Institution in one of the most diverse regions on the U.S.— to help co-create this research agenda.

“We need to learn from people and learn with people. But, that’s not always the way research is done,” Pontier said. “At FIU, we know and believe that people who experience different issues are the best experts and that’s one of the reasons the approach of this conference is so special — it’s highlighting those voices and experiences.”

In many ways, Pontier’s career has been defined by listening and learning.

Pontier first started learning Spanish in 7th grade. As an undergraduate at Boston College, he majored in Spanish and lived abroad in Madrid, Spain during his junior year. Pontier still remembers sitting in his apartment building, listening to the hustle and bustle of the city below — an entire ocean separating him from his family and friends — and realizing Spanish was an inseparable part of him. He decided he’d always use it in his life, personally and professionally.

After graduating, he joined Teach for America and went to a small town called Donna near the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where he taught 3rd grade in a dual language school. This experience confirmed he wanted to be in education, specifically language education. So, he moved to Miami and taught second grade for a year before pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Miami.

Today, when Pontier speaks Spanish, he sometimes gets a reaction along the lines of Que lindo! That compliment stings more like a slap because his bilingual students don’t often hear the same thing. They might also speak two languages, but then get told they don’t do it well enough, that one of the languages they speak is “broken.”

Pontier doesn’t shy away from this issue. He asks his students what they think when this happens. They typically respond with: “You know you’re white, right?” Then a discussion unfolds about the racialization of languages and the power dynamics in society that influence bilingualism in education. 

While he works to change education on a broader scale, Pontier is also working toward more personal change at home in his own family. He and his wife are raising their two daughters to be bilingual.

“I want people to think of the way we ‘language.’ In Miami, you have to cross language lines. As people in a bilingual city, it’s the way we do being bilingual. We don’t see it in school that often or at least not when teaching. We can change that.”