Over a hot pot lunch my partner and I started talking about the dual language program at our kid’s school. Our kid is in elementary school and is fortunate to be an immersion program where he spends half the day learning math and science in Chinese and the second half of the day learning English language arts and social studies in English.
What made the conversation interesting is he hadn’t thought about who the program is designed for. At our elementary school two-thirds of the students are students of color, including a large percentage who are Latinx and Asian and the English language learner (ELL) rate is 46%.
While cooking our hot pot I explained the benefits of the program and how it really works to ensure students of color, especially students who don’t speak English as a home or first language, benefit from spending half of the day in their home language students. Children who are native Chinese or Spanish (the two languages at our school) are at a language advantage for half the day. In their immersion classrooms, they are maintaining their home language and able to be fluent, versus the typical school model where ELL students are expected to assimilate and learn in English.
As a parent, I see the advantages of these programs for student learning. Having a quality dual language program is giving my kid a way to connect to his racial and ethnic background. While he’s part Chinese American the Chinese language is lost in our family, we don’t speak Chinese. Learning Chinese at school gives him the ability to connect with his cultural background and explain nuances of his self-identity that only language can give him. The dual language program has also helped to ensure my kid is seeing teachers of color in his classrooms. Had he been in a traditional school I couldn’t count on this since the current teaching workforce in Washington state is 92% white. All of this is important to ensuring he and other students of color are seen and understood in their schools.
As we continued to cook our lunch my partner admitted he thought dual language programs were for middle class families who wanted their children to have the advantage of learning a second language. While there is an element of truth there, dual language programs should first cater to and center their offerings to students of color and English language learners, this is racial equity. Placing dual language programs in predominately English speaking neighborhoods or allowing programs to gentrify away from their target languages is fakequity.
Why Learn Another Language
Language is a tool that can connect or divide us. When I’m facilitating I try to be conscious of the languages represented in the room and to remind myself and others we as English speakers/readers hold a lot of power and there may be times when we need to slow down to allow for full participation from everyone. In the US (and many other countries) we center our work and lives around the English language. As an interesting exercise, I recently sent out an invitation for policymakers to join me at a gathering with Chinese immigrant families. In the invitation, I added a note reminding attendees to request English interpretation since the families speak Chinese and we want to center the work on their needs first. Interestingly none of the policymakers requested an interpreter, meaning they all speak Cantonese or they assume an interpreter will be provided. Assuming interpretation is provided centers their comfort with English even though Cantonese is the dominant language of the families participating.
Learning another language is an important way to break down barriers and to practice empathy. Thinking about my kid’s education I can see him working to learn and understand another culture and language. I also saw a huge sense of pride when he taught me how to introduce myself in Mandarin for a work meeting. He took great care to correct my tones and praise me when I got it right. I hope his classmates who are Chinese language speakers are feeling the same sense of pride when they are in a position of being ‘the expert’ in the classroom.
I still remember the moment when I realized my kid’s dual language education was sticking. We were watching the movie The Martian, there is a brief scene where the actors are speaking in Chinese. The kid, who was probably about six at the time, said “I know what they are saying,” and explained the scene. It wasn’t a word for word translation but accurate interpretation. In that moment, his dual language education created a new dynamic that connected him to the world in a new way a language filter was removed. I look forward to having more moments like that but with real people, not just movies, because connecting and understanding are at the core of racial equity work. I also look forward to watching the shift away from monolingualism and creating a new norm where multilingualism is valued. As several friends have said “Hell yeah” to dual language programs and “If I could make it so, every kid in Seattle would be in an immersion program,” these are the new norms and values we need.
Currently our partners at OneAmerica are advocating and pushing a bill in the Washington legislature, HB1445/SB5529, to expand dual language access. Please join their efforts by contacting your legislators to let them know why language access and dual language programs are important to you. Please also think about what this means for our Native and Indigenous languages. Policies such as these can support language and cultural preservation and evolution which in turn fights cultural genocide. Supporting dual language programs also benefits our Deaf and Blind colleagues and neighbors who speak and read American Sign Language and Braille. Take a moment to write to your elected officials to push for dual language programs. MomsRising is collecting stories about multilingualism, hurry and share your story before this link closes.
- OneAmerica’s Home Language Campaign
- NY Times 2/21/17 Language Starts in the Womb
- When Your Parents Speak Broken English – YouTube
- Texas Observer Feb. 2017 Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University
By Erin Okuno, with help from Heidi Schillinger and Roxana Norouzi