A move towards multilingual: why this term is better than others [for now]

Multilingual person

February 2023

By Julia Yankelowitz

The language we use affects the way we perceive our world. Language can help create new understandings and expand our view of what exists and what is possible, and it also can limit our understanding. The terms we use to describe students who speak two or more languages or speak a language other than English at home, for example, impacts how we envision and develop programs and policies for those students.

Historically, the language that federal, academic and research institutions have used to describe students who speak a language other than English at home has been deficit-based, meaning that it focuses on perceived gaps or deficits. For example, the term “limited English proficient (LEP)” is used to classify students who are in the process of learning English. The shift1 to “English learner” takes the semantic emphasis off limitations but still focuses on the need to become proficient in English. Recently, however, educators increasingly are using “multilingual learner” to highlight that students are building proficiency in more than one language, which is a strength, not a deficit. This shift is an example of using more assets-based and person-centered language focusing on the strengths of individuals and placing responsibility for educational experience on the system rather than the person.

There are many different terms used to describe students who are multilingual, and the array of acronyms and terminology can be overwhelming.

How should we describe different groups of students?

When talking about students in the context of improving educational experiences, we need universal terms that encapsulate the entirety of a group of students, as well as terminology for specific student groups to specifically describe them and their experiences.

The table below details terminology commonly used when speaking of multilingual learners.

We provide context for why some terms are more assets-based than others, which terms are used in federal policy, and terms for which we are still searching for assets-based, person-centered language. Keep in mind that although practitioners, researchers and academics aspire to use more assets-based terminology, language used in federal policy often lags behind because of the time it takes to revise language in regulations. Language and knowledge often evolve together; thus, as understandings of the linguistic and cultural assets of multilingual learners evolve, the terminology will continue to change as well.

Universal Terms

Term Definition Our Thoughts
Limited English Proficient (LEP) Limited English proficient refers to students who have insufficient English to succeed in English-only classrooms. The term has mostly been replaced by English language learner (ELL) or English learner (EL). Limited English Proficient centers an individual’s perceived lack of English proficiency, rather than holistically understanding the variety of languages an individual may speak or be developing.

At the federal level, the Every Student Succeeds Act amended language in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to replace LEP with English Language Learner (ELL). However, certain state, district and county offices may still use the LEP classification.

English Language Learner (ELL) “English language learners (ELLs) are students who are in the process of learning English. While many ELLs are immigrants, the majority are born in the U.S.”2

Also sometimes referred to as English Learners (ELs).

Federal legislation currently uses the term English learner to refer to students, “whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual — (i) the ability to meet the challenging State academic standards; (ii) the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; or (iii) the opportunity to participate fully in society.”3

English Language Learner positions English proficiency as the main way to describe students’ linguistic ability, rather than holistically understanding the variety of languages students may be developing.
Multilingual Learners (ML) “Multilingual learners are students who are developing proficiency in multiple languages. This includes students learning English as an additional language in school (often referred to as ‘English learners’ or ‘English language learners’).”4 Multilingual Learners is an expansive term that encapsulates the varied linguistic backgrounds, abilities, learning stages and experiences of students in the education system. ML recognizes that students are developing multiple languages and that students’ proficiency in a language may vary across language dimensions (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).
Emergent Bilingual Students that, “through school and through acquiring English, … become bilingual, able to continue to function in their home language as well as in English, their new language and that of school.”5 Emergent Bilingual is an assets-based alternative to ELL and EL. Ofelia Garcia coined this term in 2008 to use a term that highlights students’ bilingualism as a strength.

Terms for multilingual learners with specific characteristics

Some of the characteristics that these terms highlight include student age, time in the US, time in school-based English learner programs, and previous schooling experiences.

Long-term English Learner (LTEL) “A student who has been enrolled in U.S. schools for more than six years but continues to struggle academically due to limited English proficiency.”6 Long-term English Learner (LTEL) is used legally to refer to students who have not yet met state-mandated English proficiency requirements to be reclassified as English proficient. WIDA explains the limitations of the term: “it makes the language these students bring and have learned invisible, and it problematizes the time it is taking these students to learn a particular version of English. Placing a time limit on students disregards the complexity of language use in schools, oversimplifies the process of developing multiple languages, and lets us, the school system and educators, off the hook.”7
Fluent English Proficient (FEP); Former Limited English Proficient (FLEP); Former EL; Reclassified English proficient “A designation that means a student is no longer considered as part of a school’s English learner (EL) population.”8

Note: The process of transitioning from the status of EL to FEP is often termed “Reclassification.”9

These terms recognize students who speak a language other than English at home and are considered fluent in English regardless of initial fluency or “reclassification” from EL status.

These terms are still deficit-based as they position English proficiency as the main characteristic of a student and their linguistic capabilities.

Early Childhood English Language Learner (ECELL) “An ECELL is a child who is between the ages of zero and five (early stages of development) and who is in the process of learning English as a second language”10 Early Childhood English Language Learner (ECELL) positions English proficiency as the main way to describe the linguistic ability of students in early childhood, rather than holistically understanding the variety of languages students may be developing.
Dual-Language Learner “Dual language learner (DLL) is used by early childhood practitioners to describe children, age birth to five years, who are learning two or more languages.”11 Dual-Language Learner is a more assets-based term commonly used in early childhood policies and programs (for example, Head Start12). This term recognizes that children are learning a second language while still acquiring their first; however, it may not encapsulate all the ongoing language learning and stages of a given child who may be learning 2+ languages. Note that this term is used instead of ELL or ML in the context of early childhood.
Newcomer “Newcomer” refers to any foreign-born students and their families who have recently arrived in the United States.13 Newcomer refers to the amount of time a student has been in the US and US schools. Some programs provide targeted services to Newcomers to provide them with background knowledge about how US schools work, as well as intensive English and academic content.

Not all newcomer students are necessarily English learners, but many Newcomer students are also categorized as such.

Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE) Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE) “are English language learners who have experienced interrupted education due to war, civil unrest, migration, or other factors; who have never had the opportunity to participate in any type of schooling before entering school in the United States; or who have experienced limited education in their home countries due to lack of resources or trained teachers, the type of schooling they participated in, or other circumstances.”14 Although the full term, students with limited formal education, provides an accurate description of the student’s experiences, when educators refer to ‘SLIFE students’ some of the nuance and asset-based terminology is lost.



1 The shift we are referring to is the replacement of ‘limited English proficient’ with ‘English learner’ as amended by the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA).
United States Department of Education. (2016). Non-Regulatory Guidance: English Learners and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/essa/essatitleiiiguidenglishlearners92016.pdf
2 Colorín Colorado. ELL Glossary. https://www.colorincolorado.org/ell-basics/ell-glossary
3 Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. (2015). https://www2.ed.gov/documents/essa-act-of-1965.pdf
4 National Science Teaching Association (nsta). Multilingual Learners Resources. https://www.nsta.org/topics/multilingual-learners#:~:text=Multilingual%20learners%20are%20students%20who,%22English%20language%20learners%22).
5 García, O., Kleifgen, J.A., & Falchi, Lorraine. (2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals. Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved November 3, 2022 from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED524002.pdf
6 Colorín Colorado. ELL Glossary. https://www.colorincolorado.org/ell-basics/ell-glossary
7 WIDA. (2022, June 1st). Be(com)ing an LTEL: Challenging policies and practices in the education of long-term English learners. https://wida.wisc.edu/about/news/becoming-ltel-challenging-policies-and-practices-education-long-term-english-learners
8 EdSource. Fluent English Proficient. https://edsource.org/glossary#:~:text=Fluent%20English%20Proficient%20(FEP),English%20learner%20(EL)%20population.
9 California Department of Education. Reclassification Determined by Local Education Agencies (LEAs). (2022). https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/el/rd/#:~:text=Reclassification%20is%20the%20process%20whereby,student%20meeting%20all%20the%20criteria
10 Colorín Colorado. ELL Glossary. https://www.colorincolorado.org/ell-basics/ell-glossary
11 WIDA & Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Focus On The Early Years: Dual Language Learners. https://wida.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/resource/FocusOn-EarlyYears.pdf
12 Head Start Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. Dual Language Learners. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/browse/tag/dual-language-learners
13 United States Department of Education. Newcomer Tool Kit. Chapter 1: Who are Newcomers? https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oela/newcomers-toolkit/chap1.pdf
14 DeCapua, A. & Marshall, H.W. (2010). Reaching ELLs at Risk: Instruction for Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10459880903291680

Topics: Bilingualism Early childhood Elementary Evaluation High school Middle school Research Systems change