Limited English proficiency, or LEP, is a popular term in the U.S. language industry used to describe individuals who speak a language other than English.
On the surface, the phrase seems fine, right?
We thought so, too. We use it at CLI all the time; it’s the unofficial, “official” phrase of choice by the government.
But critics argue that “limited English proficiency” emphasizes the lack of English spoken by the individual. It does nothing to recognize the broader cultural identities and experiences of the speaker.
And it doesn’t stop there.
The deficit-based thinking surrounding the use of this term isn’t actually the root of the problem. Programs and policies — developed from anti-immigration, pro-nationalism, and anti-bilingualism — are.
The language used to describe a particular group of people can influence public opinion and shape attitudes toward them. This, in turn, can impact the development of policies and laws related to that group — and vice versa. When language changes, so can attitudes, policies, and action.
Let’s take a look at how this unfolded in education.
It’s not just about terminology
Up until the 1880s, bilingualism was considered an advantage, a societal benefit for everyday living. It was embraced and protected.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the public perception surrounding bilingualism began to change. This was driven by immigration combined with a “backlash against the foreign born.”
The government began passing increasingly anti-bilingual laws aimed at changing people’s culture and linguistic identities to fit certain societal standards. This was especially true in education with the surge of English-only instruction and English immersion programs.
(The term “limited English Proficiency” was first used in 1975 after the landmark Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols. It’s been used widely since, solidified in government institutions after former President Bill Clinton enacted Executive Order 13166.)
These pro-English policies weren’t created based on reason. In fact, recent research shows the laws that banned bilingual education (in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, specifically) did not work as intended.
As one example, years after Arizona passed their so-called “English-only” law, the state had one of the lowest graduation rates amongst those who speak a language other than English.
Thankfully, the pendulum has started to swing.
English-only instruction laws have been repealed in California and Massachusetts. Around this time, in 2015, education dropped the use of “LEP” in favor of “emergent bilingual” or “emergent multilingual learners.”
Words and names hold meaning.
“By looking at children through a monolingual and monoglossic lens and insisting on categorizing them as LEPs or ELLs, the U.S. educational system perpetuates educational inequities and squanders valuable linguistic resources,” states Ofelia García, author of “Emergent Bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a Name?” (“ELLs” refers to “English language learners.”)
Using “bilingual” to describe students who speak a language other than English at home focuses on positive characteristics and centers on their strengths instead of their weaknesses.
If the government uses language that emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusivity, it can lead to policies that support and protect the rights of marginalized groups.
And García agrees. “There will not only be benefits to the children, but also to teachers, educational policymakers, parents, communities, and society at large.”
When change can really happen
Controversial, dehumanizing, and derogatory language has been used in laws and communications from the government, politicians, and media for decades.
In some cases, terms have been weaponized.
One example: using “illegal” and “alien” to describe undocumented individuals.
Some states — like California, New York, and Colorado — have only recently dropped these dehumanizing terms at the state and local level. In 2021, President Joe Biden made similar moves to scrub national immigration laws of the term “alien.”
These changes came after years of uproar from immigration advocacy groups and well-known journalists. In 2010, Race Forward started their Drop the I-Word campaign, a plea to journalists and media outlets to stop using “illegal” in their reporting.
And it worked, for the most part.
If the language industry wants to do the same, it’s going to take time, dedication, a coordinated effort, and, of course, alternative terminology.
More accurate terms than LEP
Changing terms the government uses to describe individuals who speak a language other than English will require a collective effort. And one of the first things we can do is reflect on our day-to-day use of LEP and how organizations we interact with use it.
Lead a conversation about its implications at your next staff meeting. Engage in one-on-one conversations with individuals about language and the descriptors we use when the opportunity arises.
And learn some alternative terms to “LEP.” Here are a few to get you going:
- Language other than English (LOE)
- Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD)
- Non-English language preference (NELP)
NELP is suggested by Pilar Ortega, Tiffany M. Shin, and Glenn A. Martínez in a paper titled “Rethinking the Term ‘Limited English Proficiency’ to Improve Language-Appropriate Healthcare for All.”
The authors state:
Describing patient language by preference is accurate and feasible. Since the intent of using the terminology is to provide language-appropriate care, language should be approached as a descriptor of patients’ needs and preferences when presenting for healthcare, rather than seen as an assessment of patients’ skills or as a rigid, permanent label.
- Stakeholders in IME (interpreter medical encounters) or stakeholders in IE (interpreted encounters)
These phrases emphasize the double-sided nature of interpreting; at least two parties need to use language services, not just one.
- Emergent bilingual learner or emergent multilingual learner
Be an instigator
Because the term “limited English proficiency” places the emphasis on the individual’s perceived deficiency, it can lead to blaming the individual for not being proficient in English, rather than recognizing and addressing the underlying factors that cause language barriers.
So we should make an effort to rethink our use of “LEP.” Our language choices can either promote understanding, respect, and inclusion or perpetuate stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
It’s up to us to decide.
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