The decision is usually made by necessity. English is often seen as a condition for successful assimilation in this country. But this is not without costs, and in the case of many people who have not been able to keep up with their mother tongue or have never learned the language of their family, it can have a significant impact on identity.
“Language shapes you. It shapes how you think,” says Hung, referring to the structure of language and how we form thoughts. “So if language shapes how we think, and I can’t think primarily in my native language, does that make me less of a Cantonese person and less of a Chinese person?”
Losing your first language can also affect how people learn, because fluency in your first language greatly increases your ability to learn a second language; not having a native language as a solid foundation for learning can be a barrier to language fluency.
In addition, one’s native language has a lot to do with self-esteem and can determine how a person navigates the world and the classroom.
WE LEARN BETTER WHEN WE BELONG
A A sense of belonging—being seen, valued, and connected at school—can go a long way in helping students. This can be a profound motivator and impact student success in the classroom and in the larger community.
The development of this sense of belonging depends in part on the school’s approach to language learning and the participation of non-English speaking students, as well as on the diversity of cultural heritage and background.
“You won’t be able to focus the voices and identities of students in your classroom if you don’t see those voices and those identities as valuable and important to you,” says David Bowlesauthor and professor at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, where he teaches the next generation of educators.
Bowles is committed to teaching her pre-service teachers about the value of embracing students’ cultural identities and heritages, particularly the use of languages other than English in the classroom.
“I think that schools should preserve the mother tongue and that they should use the students’ mother tongue as the primary medium for teaching literacy in those early years,” Bowles says.
Although language immersion schools have recently gained popularity, this was not always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, California banned all bilingual education programs because they were considered a “threat to the English language,” and it took almost two decades to get it back.
However, establishing bilingual education programs often requires a lot of work and determination from educators, advocates, and community members who strive for more.
“So I could finish my essay on time, I was told to stop thinking in Arabic,” Noor Bouhassoun, youth coordinator at the Arab Resource and Organization Center (AROC), says of her time in US schools, espousing the idea that in order to succeed, it must be in English.
“It’s not just a language, it’s my being, my culture. This is the language I grew up with,” she says of Arabic. “So, this language has not passed the test. And I felt like I wasn’t fully myself, I couldn’t be fully myself in school or in the school system.”
Buhassoun’s school experience helped motivate her to get involved in community organizing and work with AROC to affect change, including bringing an Arabic language learning program to San Francisco.
It’s important, she says, to “get back that sense of identity and belonging and feel like I can be proud of who I am, my family history and my language.”
Language is important to identity. It can determine the way people live in the world and, in turn, forms a worldview.
As the U.S. student population becomes more diverse, so does the call for better bilingual education that includes recognition of the role of the native language in all learning processes. “Teachers need to get to know their students,” Bowles says.
Research will continue to show preserving one’s mother tongue is of great benefitbut the big challenge is creating the bilingual learning environment necessary for students to really thrive, especially because students need a lot of one-on-one time with teachers and they’re in a system that already really taxes teachers.