By Lorea Martinez, Ph.D.
I moved to the United States from Spain seventeen years ago. I still remember the challenges of navigating a new social and cultural context as an English learner and a newly arrived immigrant. It took me years to find my voice and become the person I wanted to be. Mostly, this happened when I realized that I didn’t need to “fit in” or change myself, but I couldn’t ignore my immediate context either. By learning to merge the two, I found a new way of being.
During challenging times, I occasionally met a person who spoke Spanish, a “Hispanic,” as it is known in the U.S. Those were moments of joy. Being able to use my mother tongue, and connect with someone who shared similar struggles, gave me hope and strength. Having spent time in Nicaragua and Peru during my college years, I understood their hopes and dreams, and also their fears. But as a white person, I also knew that the experiences of Latinxs were impacted by the color of their skin.
My first child was born a decade ago. When I held her for the first time, the words that came out of my mouth were:
“Hola cariño” (hello sweetie)
During the pregnancy, I had been considering which language I should use to communicate with her. But when we first made eye contact, these words came naturally to me without thinking.
I grew up in Catalunya, a region in Spain where the common language is Catalan, but my parents immigrated there from the Northwest side of the country and we spoke Spanish at home. Growing up bilingual had many advantages, as I could easily switch from one language to the other without effort, and I developed a love for languages.
However, during my childhood, kids were very aware of which language you spoke at home and which one you decided to use to communicate with others. You could feel included or excluded in different settings based on your home language. As a small child, I interpreted that speaking fluent Catalan was key to being seen as a local and not a foreigner.
As I held this newborn and the first Spanish words were shared, I knew that it was important for her to speak the language of her mother and grandparents, and develop an appreciation for her heritage. Even if this meant that, at times, she would be seen as different because she spoke a different language.
Today, we know the many benefits of being bilingual. Compared to non-bilingual peers, bilingual students have an easier time understanding math concepts and solving word problems; developing strong thinking skills; using logic, focusing, remembering, and making decisions; thinking about language; and learning other languages.
At the same time, we know that being bilingual supports children in maintaining strong ties with their family, culture, and community. It is important for children to build pride in their heritage, as it encourages the development of a healthy identity, strengthens a positive self-image and provides protection against bias and discrimination.
Despite these benefits, many bilingual or multilingual students in the U.S., particularly our Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic and Latinx communities, attend schools that don’t consider these students’ language practices in the educational program which lead to students internalizing harmful messages about themselves. Instead of celebrating this strength, many students hide the fact that they speak more than one language, so they can be seen as normal.
As parents, we have an important role to play in creating caring and inclusive homes and communities, and planting the seeds to reduce discrimination. We can help normalize that children and parents in our communities may speak more than one language, and embrace this fact as a gift.
If you have bilingual and/or multilingual children in your community, you can support them by:
- teaching your own children to appreciate diversity;
- questioning any racial and ethnic stereotypes;
- encouraging your children in getting to know children from other races and cultures and their languages better; and
- becoming their allies in schools, faith-based organizations and the larger community as a family so your children will learn from your modeling.
This support can help create new bonds, strengthen relationships and develop new friendships in our communities.
Check out Lorea’s book both in Spanish and in English:
US Department of Education. The Benefits of Being Bilingual – A Review for Teachers and Other Early Education Program Providers.
España, C. and Herrera., Y.L. (2020). En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
We are celebrating Hispanic Heritage month. Here are some events and ways you can recognize the month.
Dr. Lorea Martínez is the award-winning founder of HEART in Mind Consulting, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate Social Emotional Learning in their practices, products, and learning communities. An educator who has worked with children and adults internationally, Dr. Martínez is a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in Emotional Intelligence. Her second book for educators, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, is currently available. Previously, she was a special education teacher and administrator. Originally from Costta Brava, Spain and now in San Francisco, CA, Lorea is a mother to two daughters. Learn more at loreamartinez.com