While biliteracy enhances students’ career options for a stable economic future in an increasingly globalized economy, its value extends far beyond material and economic benefits. Self-concept, self-value and family connections blossom when a student’s home language and culture are maintained in tandem with English fluency and literacy. When schools support students to graduate fully biliterate, they build individual student self-worth, familial connections and economic utility.
Multilingual instruction has historically been an opportunity provided to children of wealthy families. Yet students who come from recent immigrant Spanish-speaking families typically are not expected to be proficient in more than one language. We still see schooling environments that force them to set aside their home language to become proficient in English.
Recent immigrant families hope that their children will be fluent and proficient in both. In the South Texas border region, school districts with comprehensive K-12 dual language programs are making that dream a reality.
In December of 2020, after a leadership change in their district, IDRA Education CAFE members in south Texas were concerned that the district might phase out its K-12 bilingual-biliterate program. Some school board members did not appear to understand the program. Family members came together to meet with the school board urging that the program be made permanent.
“Before we had this bilingual program, our children felt ashamed and embarrassed to speak Spanish,” said Vicky Santana. The bilingual program “helped them to be more proud of themselves and proud of their language, the language that their parents and grandparents speak at home… Now they can communicate in both languages.”
Olivia Ortega also testified before the school board: “Without the [K-12 bilingual-biliterate] program, communication between families would be lost. Many young people cannot communicate with their parents or grandparents because they only speak English. For me, it is very important, as a mother, that they have this language.”
Language is not just a way to communicate with one another; it is also a way to understand oneself and one’s history and remain connected to it. In multiple community forums recently, parents spoke on how fluency in the home language supports student self-concept.
María Esparza stated, “We want [dual language/biliteracy] to be a fact, to be reality… that our children in our community do not forget their own roots and that we know where we come from and where we are today.”
Parents described the wider opportunities their students would have with strong biliteracy. “Just the fact of knowing two languages opens a lot of doors,” stated Zoila M.* “It’s something that at the beginning may not be seen as something important because we already speak the language at the house. We already know the basics. But when they are able to communicate at a higher level, they express not just the common language, but… a professional language, it will definitely open doors for them. And not only that, it embraces their roots. They’re not ashamed of coming from a Mexican family. They bring that into wherever they go. That makes us proud as parents, having them embrace their roots and culture and everything that we are at home. Bring it in and be proud. Be proud of where we are coming from and where we are going to go from there.”
As a result, the school board unanimously passed a policy statement for its K-12 biliteracy program to ensure its stability. Students in the bilingual-biliterate program receive the state’s biliteracy seal on their diploma.
We interviewed students who reflected on the importance and wide-reaching benefits of their model dual language program.
High school junior, Eunice Reyna, said: “The importance of a biliteracy program is to learn to communicate with others [even if] they don’t know English or Spanish… It’s a great opportunity to communicate with your community and help other people.”
Melenie M.,* a high school senior, added: [Biliteracy] “is important; it gives you new opportunities. It’s definitely a bridge between the two worlds. At home, my dad only speaks Spanish, and at school, it’s mostly all English. But the biliteracy and, especially the [K-12 bilingual-biliterate] program, really helped me kind-of fill that gap and be able to learn both of the languages in an academic setting and be more prepared… for the professional world and the workforce.”
Biliteracy is a many-splendored gift. Just ask the parents and students themselves.
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is IDRA’s family engagement coordinator and directs IDRA Education CAFE work. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alejandra Salazar Gonzalez is a community engagement intern at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com.
*last name omitted for privacy
See video of Education CAFE members who testified before their school board to support the K-12 bilingual-biliterate program.
[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2022 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]