We Need to Encourage Our Schools to Embrace Multilingualism

I recently went to Europe for two weeks to celebrate my honeymoon. My husband and I visited Lisboa and Porto in Portugal as well as Sevilla and Madrid in Spain. It was beautiful, both countries have so much culture, amazing food, and very nice people. 

For some context, both my husband and I are Mexican-American, both bilingual and fluent in English and Spanish. This was a good advantage while traveling in Spain because it was fairly easy to communicate and read signs, but knowing English was helpful in Portugal because we don’t speak Portuguese. 

It got me thinking a lot about being bilingual and multilingual while living in the United States, and I think about those videos on Facebook and other social media platforms where people are mocked and harassed for speaking a different language in this country. California went as far as making public education “English Only” in 1998 when Proposition 227 was passed (was later repealed in 2016 when Proposition 58 passed). Can you believe that!? 

Being bilingual is never something to be ashamed of, in fact, most countries in Europe require that students learn a different language while in school. In my experience, there is a huge assumption that Americans don’t speak anything other than English. Only 20% of Americans speak more than one language. When in Spain, people were pleasantly surprised when they learned my husband and I were American and that we spoke Spanish fluently. 

Which brings me to two important points: 

  • To students and parents in a bilingual home, learning more than one language is such an advantage everywhere in the world and is a GREAT thing!
  • To students who are labeled as an “English Learner” at school, it’s okay to learn English, but don’t lose your first language whether it is Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic etc. Parents, please encourage your child to read in their native tongue, practice their context clues so that they can join the 60-70% of people who speak more than one language in the world. 

Time and time again, I’ve seen parents upset about their children being labeled at school as English learners. Many times I’ve seen public schools treat it as if it was a learning disability. It is disheartening to see the different paths students have solely based on whether they are English learners or fluent in English. I encourage all of us to put a stop to the shaming and celebrate the diversity of our communities and fight back racism by retaining our native tongue.

Being able to communicate to people from different backgrounds and different countries is a beautiful thing, language connects people and is such an important way to communicate with others. I hope this inspires you to practice speaking more than one language and also inspires people to visit other places outside of the United States. I’m currently on Duolingo practicing my Portugese!

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Melissa Salgado

Melissa Salgado

Melissa Salgado, raised in East Los Angeles by her single mother and older siblings. She graduated from James A. Garfield High School and received her Bachelor's degree in Chicana/o Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2013. She currently works at KIPP Bay Area Schools as the Community Engagement Manager and provides families with the resources and tools they need to advocate for their children’s education and other important local initiatives. Through her work she hopes to activate power within each parent and/or guardian. Her ultimate dream is that all children will have access to high quality education no matter what zip code they live in.

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