In 2011, California pushed through legislation that credentialed the language abilities of high school graduates who could speak both English and another language to celebrate bilingualism. In 2013, Texas, New York and Illinois followed suit with their own legislation. Now, every state except South Dakota has adopted a version of that legislation called the Seal of Biliteracy. Visit the official Seal of Biliteracy website here.
Because the Seal of Biliteracy is an award for students and it can be awarded by the state, by a school, by a county office or even by the school (all per the guidelines within the state’s policy), this is a terrific way to begin a conversation with a school when taking about youth exchange.
Some states’ policies can be exclusive rather than inclusive, so you might also hear about the Global Seal of Biliteracy. This is a very similar credential for students, but it is designed for students who have an alternate path for language learning. For example, if you have a student who takes Chinese classes over the summer or on the weekends, a student who attends a private school, or even a study abroad participant who does a gap year or goes abroad their senior year, they may be excluded in the language of the state policy. So, AFS-USA now provides language proficiency testing for a number of the semester and year study abroad programs so students have a credential associated with their new language abilities.
For any volunteers and staff who help with study abroad, this is a fabulous mechanism to help the students and the school recognize the benefits of language immersion for their local students. For example, if the school awards the Seal of Biliteracy, but not many students are earning the Seal because they cannot reach the level of language proficiency required by their state’s guidelines, it’s a great opportunity to suggest that the students consider a homestay experience in a country that speaks that language. This would help the student rapidly increase their language proficiency and it would help the school boost their numbers of graduates earning the Seal of Biliteracy.
Additionally, if you have a student who wants to go abroad in a country whose language does not align with the languages offered by the school, many of the states’ policies indicate that a student can take a proficiency test (only certain tests are acceptable) and use that measure of their language proficiency to make them eligible for the Seal or to even give them high school credit (in some cases). Language assessments are available by both ACTFL/Language Testing International (AAPPL Assessment or Oral Proficiency Interview with Writing Proficiency Test) and by Avant Assessment. Both companies offer virtual proctoring of the test so the students can test from home.
The benefits for hosting exchange students for schools who offer the Seal of Biliteracy include the following:
- World Language teachers would have native speaking teenagers in the building to be a conversational resource for their students. This is especially important for upper level language classes, for classes where there is very little linguistic diversity in the school community and where the world language teacher is not a native speaker.
- Many, but not all, exchange students that come to the United States have command of their home language, English and in some cases, a third or fourth language. This is a tremendous way for the teachers and school leaders to let the exchange students model multilingualism for the local students.
- Schools can encourage informal learning via conversation circles or language corners in the cafeteria or during club/extracurricular activity time when they host students whose language is not one of the languages offered in the school’s course selection. For example, it is not uncommon to find students who like Korean pop (K-Pop) music and would therefore like to learn more Korean, but that is not a language offered at the school. The same would be true for kids who enjoy Anime and want to learn Japanese. Although these students won’t necessarily reach the level of proficiency required to earn the Seal of Biliteracy, it is a chance to encourage lifelong learning.
If you identify a school that offers the Seal of Biliteracy to their students, commend the school on their choice to value and prioritize language learning. If you identify a school that does NOT offer the Seal of Biliteracy, you could share a little bit about it with them and send them the links. That would also be an opportunity to connect with the world language teachers and share with them as not all language teachers know about the Seal or the benefits it yields for students.
To determine if the school you are working with offers the Seal of Biliteracy, you should start by looking on the school’s website. If nothing is listed there, visit your state’s department of education website and search for the schools that awarded the Seal the previous year.
If you have any questions about this content, please reach out to Jill Woerner, Director of Educational Outreach, at firstname.lastname@example.org.