NML Interview with Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Language Educator

This blog post first appeared on the The National Museum of Language (NML) Blog on December 12, 2017.

This month, we feature Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, a Spanish and ESOL teacher and doctoral candidate in Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy from Concordia University. Luis has made several presentations and publications on both the studying of languages and the state of language learning and ESOL in the United States. Here’s what he had to say about the current state and future of language education.

Please tell me about your educational and professional background.

I started my education back in 2007 while serving in Japan as an active duty military member in the United States Marine Corps. Once I completed my tour in Japan, I came back to the United States, fulfilled my military service, and completed my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from University of Maryland University College. After working in the administration field for a couple of years, I realized I was not passionate about it and one day I just quit. After quitting, I decided to volunteer as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at night and I quickly became passionate about teaching languages and helping people become successful in the United States. It did not take long for me to enroll at Strayer University’s Master in Education program, with a specialization in adult education and development.

Right after completing my M.Ed. at Strayer, I realized that I needed to continue learning to become more knowledgeable and better serve my students. For that reason, I enrolled simultaneously at two master degree programs: (1) M.Ed. in Bilingual Education with a Graduate Certificate in ESL at American College of Education and a (2) Master of Science in Spanish Language Education at NOVA Southeastern University. After completing these three master degrees and the graduate certificate program, I realized that, additionally to teaching, research was also my passion. As a result, I looked at many Ph.D. programs that gave me the flexibility and opportunity to learn about language learning and education. I did not want to be boxed in as a “Spanish educator” or “ESL educator”, I wanted to have the flexibility of being a language and literacy educator. I was blessed to find the Ph.D. in Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy program at Concordia University Chicago, and I have been a doctoral candidate since 2014. I am currently in the last phase of my doctoral program, and I am currently writing my 4th and 5th chapters, which are the last chapters of my doctoral dissertation.

During this time as a graduate student, I have had the privilege of teaching at different schools and at different grade levels. I have taught Spanish and ESL at all grade levels, including K-12 and undergraduate and graduate classes at colleges and universities as an adjunct professor. I have also served at different language and education institutions in diverse leadership roles such as TESOL International, Maryland TESOL, Greater Washington Association of Teachers of Foreign Language, and University of Maryland University College Alumni Association, to name a few. I have also been blessed to receive different awards, honors, and recognitions from many educational institutions such as the Alumni Achievement Awards from the American College of Education, the Outstanding Educator Award from Prince George County Public Schools, the Emerging Leader in TESOL recognition from TESOL International Association, and the Teacher of Honor Award by Kappa Delta Pi, to name a few. In addition to my active role at different institutions and teaching roles, I am very involved in research and presentations. My research interests and areas of expertise include Bilingual Education, Spanish, ESOL/ESL, Adult Education, Literacy Studies, and Hispanic Pedagogues. Currently, my primary research focuses on the language and literacy experiences of Ixil and indigenous Hispanic ESL students in American classrooms. I hope to be able to share my findings and lessons learned from this relevant topic very soon.

Did you use your language skills in any other profession or capacity before teaching?

While living in Japan, I became very interested in learning more about the Japanese language and culture. I had the opportunity to learn Japanese in an informal setting with friends and co-workers who are Japanese and I would teach them English. Thinking back to that time, I think it was a very interesting exchange because they would teach me Japanese and I would teach them English without curriculum or a guide, it was all about getting the message across and being able to communicate.

What made you want to start teaching?

As I mentioned in the first question, having the opportunity to volunteer at a non-profit program made me fall in love with teaching. Prior to volunteering as an ESL instructor, I did not know the big impact I could make in my community by teaching ESL and by serving as a guide and a mentor for my ESL students to be successful in the United States. In addition to the teaching component, I saw the ESL field as an advocacy opportunity where I could make a difference for those who need it the most.

What are some of the systemic challenges you find trying to promote the learning of language?

As a Spanish and ESL educator, I have had the opportunity to experience the challenges and opportunities for each field first-hand. For Spanish, or any world language studied in the United States really, the challenges come down to motivation and perception. The reality is that none of the 50 states require foreign language courses for graduation in high school. Currently there are only 34 states that offer foreign language classes ​​as optional credits for graduation, but students have the option of choosing between languages, art classes or vocational/technical classes to complete this requirement. There are even some states that are now adopting programming and coding as language credits, which hurts even further the world languages field. When students see that foreign language is not required and they do not see an immediate applicability for becoming bilingual, then learning a world language becomes unimportant to them.

On the other hand, ESL learners are often motivated to learn English because they know and understand the many benefits of becoming fully bilingual in the United States. However, one of the biggest challenges in the ESL field is finding and keeping qualified staff to teach classes of all subjects to ESL students. Particularly in K-12 environments, teaching such a linguistically, culturally and academically diverse population of English Learners (ELs) is challenging, but even more challenging is finding educators and staff who can teach different subjects and grade levels and have the necessary training to teach ELs. In addition to this, if we look at bilingual education programs, many of them are experiencing teacher shortage and many school districts have to look for qualified and bilingual educators outside of the United States and Puerto Rico in places like Spain and Philippines to name a few.

What is the biggest challenge facing educators of world languages today?

In my experience, the biggest challenges world language educators face today are appreciation and acknowledgement. World languages and language educators are not appreciated and recognized enough, neither in K-12 nor in higher education. The push for standardized testing and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has changed academia’s perception of and interest in languages. It is not uncommon to find that language professors at universities and colleges have a disproportionally lower salary than their STEM counterparts. It is also not uncommon to see that language majors continue to be eliminated from higher education institutions due to low enrollment. In K-12 environments, world language departments are often less acknowledged and recognized because their classes are not requirements for graduation and students do not take standardized tests in world languages, therefore, schools are not impacted by their students’ knowledge of languages. All of this plays into lower salaries for world language educators, a noticeable lack of motivation in both students and language teachers, and little appreciation from an academic and administrative standpoint.

How do you see your non-native students using their language skills in the future?

As we all know, our world continues to become more globalized. There are now many opportunities in the United States to interact with people from diverse cultural backgrounds who speak different languages. It is my hope that my non-native students use their language skills in the future to communicate with cultures and communities they have not interacted with before, either inside or outside the United States. The goal for learning languages is to broaden our minds, to think differently about our world, and to see new perspectives that we could not see with just our native language. I hope that my non-native students see the importance of language learning and become bridges and advocates for the teaching and learning of world languages.

What about your native speakers? What do you see as your role to them as an educator?

When I think of native Spanish speakers I feel that my role to them as an educator is to help them understand how valuable their culture and language is in the United States and around the world. Many native speakers who arrive to the United States think that learning English needs to come at the expense of losing their native language, but this is not the truth. I am a strong advocate for bilingualism and for advocating for my students’ native languages and cultures. If I can help my native speaker students understand the importance of maintaining and preserving their native language through the generations, then I have done my job.

What are your thoughts on the roles of technology in the language classroom?

Technology is a wonderful thing and it does provide many benefits when used in the language classroom. However, I do think that languages are meant to be spoken and learned through human contact. Language is a manifestation of human experiences and realities, and it should be learned and practiced in an environment with people who can recreate those experiences and realities. I think it is great to use technology in the language classroom as a resource, but not as the primary and only means of instruction.

What are your thoughts on the Seal of Biliteracy being adapted in Maryland and other states nationwide?

The Seal of Biliteracy is an amazing initiative that recognizes our bilingual students for their skills and abilities. In 2016, I wrote an article where I shared my reflections regarding the impact the Seal of Biliteracy has in the state of Maryland and in the United States. I believe we need more initiatives like the Seal of Biliteracy to revitalize the passion for language learning nationwide. I invite all of you to read more about my article here.

What do you recommend to those considering entering the field of language education?

For those considering entering the field of language education, I would like to exhort you to learn and research more about the wonderful impact you can have in your community and school by just teaching and learning a new language. As language educators, we have the privilege of teaching a language to our students and by doing so we also, and inadvertently, become advocates, translators, activists, and mentors of the language, culture, and population we serve. Become passionate about your language and culture, and teach those around you how wonderful language education is!