Why it’s important to honor home languages in schools

Parents gather at Graham Hill Elementary School at an event on Dec. 8. (Photo by Nimco Bulale/OneAmerica)
Parents, students and teachers gather on Dec. 8 at Graham Hill Elementary School for an educational community event about the benefits of home language learning. (Photo by Nimco Bulale/OneAmerica)

After civil war broke out in Somalia, my family moved to Uganda in search of security. Following years in an indeterminate state as refugees, we finally landed in Seattle.  

My first encounter with the American school system rattled me. My mother dropped me off at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle’s Central District, and said, “nabad gelyo,” “goodbye” to me in Somali. Before I even began settling into the classroom that day, my teacher told me that, in order to be successful, it was important that I only speak English, emphasizing that my Somali language skills would not be helpful.

If only this teacher knew then what we know today: Knowledge of more than one language can boost a child’s creative thinking and problem-solving skills and, when children have a strong understanding of their home language first, it actually helps facilitate learning a second language such as English.

Thankfully, my mother worked hard to ensure my siblings and I kept speaking Somali, but many other immigrant students systematically discouraged from speaking their home language were not so lucky. Even today, families encounter the misleading attitude and popular narrative that speaking another language can confuse children and detract from English learning.

That’s why today, immigrant rights organization OneAmerica, launched a statewide “Speak Your Language” campaign

More than 180 languages are spoken in South King County alone, and in many parts, more than a quarter of the population speaks a language other than English. Linguistically diverse families are a growing asset to our schools and communities, and we need to continue advancing policies and systems that recognize this, while helping to close the opportunity gap in our schools. 

As an education organizer with OneAmerica, I took part in a December community event at South Seattle’s Graham Hill Elementary School, coordinated in partnership with their Parent and Teacher Association and the school. The aim was to celebrate and learn about the many languages spoken within the school, and increase pride in bilingualism and multilingualism among students and their families.

I was able to tell the parents about opportunities students have to earn high school credit for demonstrated proficiency in their home language and show them a video that was actually translated in their home language.

During small group discussions, parents expressed that it is important for schools to honor students’ native language and help students realize that being multilingual can create career opportunities. They made a commitment to speak their home language to their children through storytelling and daily activities.

However, parents also expressed some of the obstacles they encountered in supporting their children. Some explained that they were not fully literate in their home language and were not able to read to their children at home. Somali parents asked for more support in the form of Somali-English tutoring and after-school programs, and parents from all of the language groups asked for additional support in accessing books in their home language. 

Not only was the dialogue at Graham Hill Elementary a breakthrough for many families who have received years of negative messaging about nurturing home languages, but a testament to the need to learn more about how to best support multilingualism in the school day.

Important progress has been made since my first day at Thurgood Marshall Elementary with more schools  and districts increasingly embracing bi-and -multilingualism. Highline School District is leading the way with the goal for their class of 2026 to graduate fully bilingual and biliterate. High school students can now earn world language credits through competency testing in their home language, and a Seal of Biliteracy on their high school diplomas. Last year, legislation passed to award grants to schools for dual-language education.

Advocacy efforts like the “Speak Your Language” campaign give me hope that we can change the narrative about language learning so that one day, no child will experience shame for speaking their home language, and instead, feel great pride in their multilingualism.

But without strong, positive messages from schools and surrounding communities, immigrant children often abandon their home language, reject their home culture, lose their ability to communicate with their families and fail to benefit from the recognized development benefits of bilingualism.

Schools, educators, service providers and community leaders play a key role in keeping the progress going on home language learning, so that immigrant students don’t get left behind.

Here are a few actions one can take through our “Speak Your Language” campaign:

Take action, access dual-language resources or learn more about the campaign at www.speakyourlanguage.weareoneamerica.org.  

1 Comment

  1. Studies suggest that giving bilingual education to children can provide long-lasting benefits, like delaying dementia; teaching better self-regulation skills needed for focus and self-control; increasing children’s awareness of new sounds like the ones they hear in the second language; and boosting creativity.

    English is not a peace building language for the Muslim children in British schooling. Majority of English speaking Muslim youths are extremists, find themselves cut off from their cultural heritage and are unable to enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. One can find English speaking Muslim youths in Syria and Iraq, in prison and in the mental hospital. Thanks to English language. English is the economic language of the Muslims while Arabic , Urdu and other community languages are the social and emotional languages of the Muslim community.
    Bilingualism has positive effects on children’s linguistic and educational development. The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development. Mother tongue promotion in the school helps develop not only the mother tongue but also children abilities in the majority school language. Spending instructional time through minority language in the school does not hurt children’s academic development in the majority school language. When parent’s culture are recognized by the school, their interest and involvement in the curriculum often increase dramatically.

    Children’s mother tongue is fragile and easily lost in the early years of school. Language lies at the heart of any culture. The different languages spoken provide clear links with the family and community traditions which enrich British culture. To reject a child’s language in the school is to reject a child. Children cultural and linguistic experience in the home is the foundation of their future learning and we must build on that foundation rather than undermine it. Increased cultural and language awareness could help to combat hooliganism.
    Languages, by virtue of their direct contribution to economic competitiveness, intercultural tolerance and social cohesion, should have the status of a key skill alongside literacy, numeracy and ICT. The government should establish a national strategy for developing capability in languages and a system capable of supporting such a strategy. A language supremo should be attached to the cabinet office and have direct access to the Prime Minister. He should persuade the notoriously monolingual British to learn a language. New languages supremo must persuade reluctant Brits to speak something other than English. British society is already a multilingual society. The first wave of immigrants arrived with two or three languages from the sub-continent but its young generation is unable to feel pride in its mother tongue. The government should declare a firm commitment to early language learning for all children at age five. The key to success in business, the law and politics in the future will be the mastery of at least one foreign language. Knowledge of more than one language demonstrates that a candidate has the ability to think across cultural boundaries. Bilingualism enhances children’s development.

    After the Second World War migrants from the Indian sub-continent started creating pockets by settling in all big cities of the United Kingdom with a spoken language known as Urdu by Muslims and Hindi by Hindus. It is impossible to find any Asian who cannot speak or understand this language. Majority of the movies, radios and TVs programs are in Urdu/Hindi. We can easily say that it has become a lingua francia of the Asian community.

    Arabic, Urdu and other community languages are taught in all secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. But the curriculum is so basic that the pupils are unable to read a newspaper or write a letter. The tradition of British education is that it never took the teaching of foreign languages seriously, therefore, the standard and the quality is poor. It does not matter for the English pupils to take a foreign language with interest but it is a question of life and death for the Muslim and especially Pakistani pupils, otherwise they will be cut off from their roots. Majority of Muslims are from Pakistan, they also need to learn and be well versed in Arabic as a religious language and Urdu as a social and emotional language. The teaching of Arabic Urdu and other community languages should be introduced from Nursery level; otherwise there is a danger of its extinction.

    At present the Muslim community from the sub-continent is confused about so many issues regarding Urdu language. Sooner or latter they have to get rid of the confusion for the sake of their future generation and for the future of Urdu language. The Muslim youths are unable to enjoy the beauty and charm of their language. They are incapable of enjoying the emotional, mental and spiritual pleasures of Urdu language. The intellectuals of the Muslim community are worried that the dominance of English language will destroy the cultural heritage of Muslims from the sub-continent. Now they are thinking very seriously to devise ways and means to avoid the natural death of Urdu language.

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