A case for bilingual immersion programs for young Latin Americans
For many of my young Latinx people who grew up in Southern California, our contact with Spanish comes in different ways. We could talk about it with our parents or grandparents from an early age. Others might learn in high school – the only time language acquisition is really emphasized. But in an English-focused and assimilationist childhood, many often lose their critical and academic engagement with Spanish at a young age when learning a second language is much easier than later in life. Reflecting on my own experiences, bilingual education is not only a means for the Latinx community to communicate with each other, but it is also a means of cultural preservation.
Over the summer, I worked as the literacy leader for WISE Readers to Leaders, a non-profit organization that aims to maintain summer literacy skills in various elementary schools in Los Angeles. It was my first experience teaching 12 third graders and teaching in general. While the goal of the program was to practice reading in English, I encountered an unexpected obstacle: some of my students only spoke Spanish.
One of the students’ names was Santiago. He had recently moved from Mexico to the United States and luckily, as the only teacher who spoke Spanish, I was able to work with him on his English. I wondered how many had dismissed his advanced command of Spanish for his poor English skills. Like many who immigrated from Mexico, he learned English gradually. But, his academic skills in Spanish will remain stagnant unless a bilingual education program is instituted.
In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, a law known as the “English in Public Schools” initiative, which dramatically reduced the number of bilingual education programs by requiring public schools to teach to students who had a lower understanding of English in special classes that were taught only in English. But in 2016, voters repealed Proposition 227 restrictions through the California Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act, allowing schools to freely teach classes using a bilingual approach.
For students like Santiago, who master one language and learn another, dual-language immersion programs are particularly effective. Bilingual programs are intended for native speakers of English and native speakers of Spanish, with the aim of cross-cultural competence and understanding. Here, the two languages have priority and grow together.
Many of my students were children of Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan immigrants. Many of them lit up like light bulbs whenever their heritage and language was brought up in class. A girl, Luna, liked to share her culture: “Did you know that the Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala? Have you ever played the lottery? Mr. Andrew, are you Mexican?
Speaking to them in Spanish was a special cultural bond that we created, regardless of their Spanish or English skills. Their minds were rich with the power of both languages because, outside of the summer program, Spanish was often neglected in their education.
Growing up in Southern California, I met a range of Latinx people with a range of Spanish-speaking abilities and cultural connections. For my friends who considered themselves “children without a sabo”, many expressed a desire to get closer to their culture and their Spanish language.
“No sabo” is a telltale phrase that most Latinx immigrant children avoid in order to maintain their Spanish-speaking credibility. For those who don’t know, “no sabo” is a bad conjugation of the Spanish translation of “I don’t know”. It’s a harmless mistake, but saying that phrase automatically attracts first mild ridicule, then scrutiny. On TikTok in particular, the term “no sabo kids” has become a misleading mode of categorizing monolingual Latinx teens in the United States as “cultureless.”
For many, being bilingual is a source of pride, because carrying one’s culture is something to celebrate, especially within underrepresented communities. However, the term “no sabo kid” has created an unnecessary bilingual barrier to embracing one’s Latinx identity when in reality there is no right way to be Latinx.
Being monolingual should not be a source of shame in the same way that accessibility to bilingual immersion programs should not be limited, as they can be a powerful tool for cultural enlightenment. Given the growing population of bilingual Californians, bilingual immersion programs are needed. And luckily they are coming.
The California Department of Education has proposed that half of all K-12s will have participated in some sort of bilingual curriculum by 2030. By 2040, they aim for three out of four students to be fluent in two or more languages, obtaining a state seal. bi-literacy.
We have long since moved beyond the traditional English-only school system. For my friends who feel disconnected from their culture, bilingual immersion programs can be a factor that can rekindle their connection to their language and heritage.