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Fostering or hindering students' native language development?

In English y en español

The more languages you speak, the more means at your disposal to explore the world and express yourself. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards English and Spanish most of the time. For example, right now, I’m writing this blog entry in English while I have Spanish language pop songs playing in the background.

Cuando se trata de hablar de mis sentimientos y de platicar a gusto con la familia o amigos cercanos, uso el español. ¿La música para bailar? Cumbias, y esas seguro que sonarían raras si no se cantaran en español. La lectura de esparcimiento, la prefiero en español. La escritura, si involucra mis sentimientos y reflexión, tiene que ser en español. ¿Y las telenovelas? ¡Esas también tienen que ser en español, por supuesto!

Now, to me, English is for business, directions, texting, emailing, formal oral communication, reading for information, as well as academic and analytic writing.

Your native language is part of your identity

I feel fortunate to be able to choose between English and Spanish as I see fit in my daily life and believe it’s ironic that while some children not far from where I live receive instruction in Mandarin Chinese, English, and Spanish – to then graduate from 12th grade academically proficient in three languages –, many more children whose native language is other than English start losing their native language as early as pre-Kindergarten. That’s right, while we nurture some children’s identities, we strip many other children from their own cultural identities by having their mother tongues mutilated and replaced.

Despite the language genocide we still experience in our country, we can find examples of families that have refused to allow their children to lose their mother tongue. At teacher preparation programs in Texas, for example, we have the case of lucky bilingual teacher candidates who come in with an adequate Spanish language proficiency that will allow them to earn a bilingual teacher certification. Some of these teacher candidates often report they did not acquire their native language proficiency at school, but at home, and thanks to family contexts that would not allow part of their children’s cultural identity to die.

Unlike some sectors of our society, these families understood that one’s language is part of one’s identity, and therefore, our job is to nurture and develop our children’s native languages. It is true: If you are not willing to give up part of your cultural identity, make sure you don’t lose your native language. By keeping our native language alive, our culture lives on, and that special connection to our families and community strengthens. The community that speaks the same language stays together.

Fostering students’ native language development in the classroom

As teachers, we do not only facilitate instruction. We touch children’s lives, so we must ponder the following question every day we walk into our classrooms: When it comes to students’ native language development, will we intentionally foster or hinder it? Our decision – whatever it is – will permeate our work in the classroom as we facilitate learning.

Whether we speak our students’ native languages or not, we can still choose to foster their native language development if this is in fact what we want to do. Here are some ideas.

Dive into your students’ native languages

Learning another language takes a long time, but one does not need to learn the new language perfectly to start communicating in it. Survival second/foreign language courses allow learning basic communication skills that will work wonders in the classroom. If you are a school leader, you can make sure your school offers these face-to-face courses for teachers and other school staff. Otherwise, your school may wish to take advantage of foreign language lessons available via apps such as Duolingo, Babbel, and Mango Languages. You can set up a calendar to allow teachers and school staff to cover a predetermined number of lessons, and then, schedule a quick meeting every so often to gauge everyone’s progress through fun oral quizzes administered by a native speaker of the language everyone is studying.

Another option for language learning is a one-on-one language tutoring sessions. All you need is a well-defined goal, such as a list of words and phrases you want to learn and a willing native language speaker eager to trade tutoring hours with you. That speaker may be a bilingual teacher aide, a volunteer, a parent, a colleague, or a member of the community. This person, for example, could teach you what you want to learn in Spanish, and you could teach the person something he or she wants to learn in the English language. Having one-on-one tutoring sessions with a native speaker of the language you want to learn will give you a good language model in addition to a great opportunity for interacting and further exploring the new culture.

Enlist the help of live translators or interpreters

Identify people in your school and community who speak English in addition to the native language you wish to translate, and who are willing to serve as translators during face-to-face parent-teacher conferences and other situations such as phone conferences and online communication. Translators can be found among members of the community, families, and older members of the students’ extended families.

Use electronic translators and apps

Two widely used online translators are Google Translate, which is also available as an iPhone and Android smartphone app, and Bing Translator. When using these online tools and apps, it is a good idea to ask a native speaker for input on the accuracy and appropriateness of your translation before sharing the translated message with your audience.

Ensure access to books written in your students’ native languages

Books written in the languages your students speak are critical literacy tools for the classroom and they also validate your students’ and families’ cultural backgrounds and languages. By incorporating these books into your classroom library, you will send home the message that you value families’ native languages, and this, in turn, will encourage students’ native language survival as well as home-school communication.

In my next blog entry, I will continue to explore ways in which we can validate our students’ languages and cultures through the incorporation of the elements of the Hispanic oral tradition into instruction. Also, I’m excited to share that this fall, I will participate as facilitator in a full-day professional development workshop in Texas!

The workshop is titled Three Steps for Mastering Academic Vocabulary with English Language Learners. If you’re interested in strategies that support culturally and linguistically relevant instruction, please go to for more information.

Thank you so much for reading.

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