Melanie Carbine is a third-year doctoral student studying Literacy, Culture, and Language Education in the College of Education. After teaching middle school math in Maryland for 10 years, Carbine recognized the need for teachers to be versed in multilingual education practices.
“I had a lot of English language learners, or emerging multilingual students in my math class,” Carbine says. “I was witnessing what was happening with my students. They were trapped in different classes because they’re multilingual, because they're language learners.”
Carbine’s graduate level research at Iowa focuses on heritage language speakers. While there is not one clear definition of a heritage language speaker, it can refer to a student whose first language includes the language of instruction, for example, a student whose first language includes Spanish in a Spanish language class. It can also refer to a student whose first language is English, but they grew up in a family environment surrounded by the non-English instructional language. Carbine’s advisor, Dr. David Cassels Johnson, describes the nature of their shared research.
“Our research looks at Spanish as a heritage language instruction in the state of Iowa at the secondary level,” Dr. Johnson says, “and the perspectives and policies for teaching Spanish as a heritage language in high schools in Iowa.”
The project was originally sponsored by the University’s Public Policy Center, which provides research support for engaged, policy-relevant projects. Carbine speaks to the importance of their research to ensure robust and equitable language education for heritage language speakers.
“We still have a lot to do to increase our bilingual programming and heritage language classes,” Carbine says, “because a lot of times our heritage speakers just end up in the wrong classes.” Heritage speakers in Spanish classes have unique learning needs, therefore, Carbine’s research seeks to identify structures that would positively influence high school heritage language classes in Iowa.
“We want to turn it into a project that would have an impact on heritage Spanish teaching in the state of Iowa,” Dr. Johnson says, “because — and the state of Iowa is not unique in this regard — we don't really have clear cut policies, practices, or models to accommodate these students.”
In addition to her research on heritage Spanish language instruction, Carbine is a Marshallese speaker and advocates for Marshallese language education and maintenance. Marshallese is a Micronesian language spoken in the Marshall Islands and throughout Marshallese communities in the United States. Carbine started her teaching career in the Marshall Islands, where she lived for three years in her twenties as a volunteer and teacher.
Carbine notes that about a quarter of the world’s population of Marshallese speakers resides in Arkansas. In addition, there are large populations of Marshallese speakers in Washington state, as well as a significant Marshallese community in Dubuque, Iowa. Despite these areas having large populations of Marshallese speakers, Carbine laments that heritage language classes and bilingual education in Marshallese are almost non-existent.
“The other quest for why I decided to come to the program at Iowa is because I was faced with a lot of comments that there is no research on educating in Marshallese,” Carbine says. "This realization is part of what motivated me to pursue my degree here. I want to be part of the solution to this research dilemma."
In the beginning of the Spring 2023 semester, Carbine received the Graduate College’s Center for Translation and Global Literacy Student Travel Grant. With the support of this grant, Carbine will travel to Springdale, AR this summer to create a translation guidebook for Marshallese. This guidebook will help make public resources and health services accessible for Marshallese communities.
“With COVID-19 there was an increased need for a public health translation journal,” Carbine says. “My project has proposed going through all these different translation versions and looking for new terminology created during this time period to put together a translation guide and resources.”
With a decade of Marshallese translation under her belt, Carbine confesses that the process can be difficult because there are no published or authoritative translation standards for domain-specific vocabulary. The lack of domain-specific translation resources sometimes results in translators relying on English forms and vocabulary within their translations. Therefore, Carbine will be collaborating with the Marshallese Consul General and the Marshallese Consulate for the continental United States to create a guidebook that will help alleviate this problem.
“The use of English loanwords and the transfer of English syntax into Marshallese translations has been apparent and is not necessarily appreciated by the community,” Carbine says. As a minoritized language that faces pressure from English dominance in society, it is important for the maintenance of Marshallese that translators have access to resources that provide domain-specific guidelines in Marshallese.
In relation to her Marshallese translation work in Arkansas, for her dissertation, Carbine plans to focus on Marshallese language maintenance in Dubuque, Iowa. Her research proposes to collaborate with the Crescent’s Community Clinic in Dubuque to create a Marshallese language class for children of the community.
Amidst her involvement in several research projects, involving both Spanish and Marshallese speakers, Carbine says that she still misses teaching middle school. However, teaching dual language education specialization in the College of Education opened her up to involvement with pre-service teacher education. For this reason, after completing her doctoral degree, Carbine wants to work with pre-service teachers as well as continuing her involvement with Marshallese language maintenance.
“We have a growing multilingual student population in Iowa, which is made invisible because the K-12 school system focuses so much on English,” Carbine says. “But, all teachers should be preparing to teach multilingual students and not just in English as a Second Language classes. Bringing that skillset to future educational opportunities for teachers is really important.”
Dr. Johnson also speaks to the importance of multilingual education and the impact Carbine’s research can have on the field. “Multilingual education has been shown to be an effective pedagogical model,” says Dr. Johnson. “It's also an ethical pedagogical model because it provides access to education in the student’s mother tongue, in their first language.”
Carbine’s unique skillset and her own bilingualism allow her to approach her research from multiple perspectives, connecting with Marshallese students and communities. In this way, Carbine’s work supports present multilingual educational opportunities and the future of multilingualism in Iowa’s schools.
“I am still very interested in working in curriculum and heritage language education,” Carbine says, “but I think the most important thing is to prepare teachers to teach multilingual students and be advocates for just language maintenance themselves.”