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Guadalupe Valdés argues to expand the definition of giftedness

Bilingual children who act as linguistic and cultural interpreters should be viewed as an asset to American society, not a liability, education Professor Guadalupe Valdés argued Nov. 4 at the School of Education's semi-annual Cubberley Lecture.

"In many countries, to be educated means to be bilingual," Valdés said. "In this country, the term bilingual is used to suggest that you are uneducated. Bilingualism has a bad rap."

Valdés, the newly appointed Bonnie Katz Tenenbaum Professor in Education, lectured on "Expanding Definitions of Giftedness: The Case of Young Interpreters."

Valdés, an expert in Spanish-English bilingualism in the United States, is the author of Learning and Not Learning English: Latino Students in American Schools (2001) and Con respeto: Bridging the Distances Between Culturally Diverse Families and Schools: An Ethnographic Portrait (1996).

In her lecture, Valdés discussed some of the findings of a five-year study that aimed to "broaden definitions of intelligence currently used to identify 'giftedness' by focusing on abilities that are not generally identified or positively evaluated in formal education."

Part of the research focused on young Latino interpreters who may be enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, rather than gifted programs, and are not expected to succeed in school. Such students often act as interpreters in their communities, Valdés said, and learn to respond to challenging situations that demand quick thinking and skills. "They were the most suspect of youngsters," she said. "And yet, they did incredible things when they were interpreting."

Valdés explained that she shared a deep personal interest in the research because she had been a "young interpreter" and later became a certified federal court interpreter.

Valdés said such students often bridge cultural and linguistic gaps by becoming unofficial interpreters in their communities. In a scenario shown on video during the lecture that involved a curt English-speaking teacher confronting an annoyed Spanish-speaking mother over her daughter who was accused of stealing, the role-playing student, who was a community interpreter in real life, omitted or changed insulting comments in the dialogue.

For example, when the mother told the teacher, "A usted también que le vaya bien, doña-secree-mucho," or "You have a good day too, Mrs. really-stuck-up," the student giggled and omitted a translation. And when the mother continued with, "y gracias por creernos a todos una bola de ladrones," or "and thanks for thinking that we are all a bunch of thieves," the student instead said, "Thanks for serving her -- for attending her."

While officially certified interpreters are expected to translate as accurately as possible, informal community interpreters play a broader and more complicated role in communicating among diverse groups of people.

Initially, Valdés said, she did not look closely at programs designed for gifted and talented students because bilingual Latino children are rarely identified as part of this group. "They seemed rather elitist and rather isolationist," she said, noting that "existing views of gifted children reflect an upper-middle-class experience." Quoting from one researcher, she pointed out that "black, Hispanic and Native American children appear in gifted programs about one-half or less of their prevalence in the U.S. population, whereas Asian Americans appear at twice their percentage in the U.S. population."

However, as Valdés studied the issue more closely, she discovered that various definitions of giftedness exist, and that some researchers have described it as, "something we invent, not something we discover."

After closely investigating how a group of so-called "at-risk" ninth grade Latinos deftly adapted to challenging situations as they interpreted during a series of simulated exercises, Valdés concluded that the students' abilities fit the current federal definition of giftedness:

"Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential of performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience or environment."

As a result, according to the same definition, Valdés said young interpreters, similar to students identified as gifted, "require services or activities not ordinarily provided by schools."

Valdés said such students should not be placed in existing gifted programs, which have not been designed to foster and build upon their specific skills. Instead, she suggested that the programs and methods used to educate ESL students should be reexamined, leading to:

  • the development of new instructional approaches designed to build on students' promise, rather than perceived weaknesses;
  • the establishment of schools for talent development, where schoolwide programs are aimed at developing the linguistic and analytic abilities of students;
  • the establishment of gifted educational programs for experienced young interpreters.

According to Valdés, much work still needs to be done on the variety of "gifted behaviors" exhibited by such students who are often left behind by the educational system. "This will contribute not only to our understanding of the cognitive consequences of bilingualism," she said, "but also to the appropriate identification, instruction and assessment of these uniquely talented young people."


By Lisa Trei

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