“I Am My Language”: Valuing Our Latinx Linguistic Identities

During Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15, you celebrated Latinx history by exploring Dolores Huerta’s co-founding of the National Farmworker’s Association, the development of salsa music in New York, and Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg’s preservation of Black history and culture. You feel that your month-long celebration was successful. ¡Pare! – not so fast! Part of the ongoing work of recognizing the Latinx community’s foundational role in U.S. history is to honor and affirm the value of our Latinx students’ linguistic identities every day.

When Chicana activist and poet Gloria Anzaldúa asserts “I am my language,” she foregrounds how Latinx multilingual identities are central to the ways we view, process, experience, and express ourselves in the world. Yet although Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the U.S. and the principal language of the Western Hemisphere, mainstream monolingualism continues to define the Latinx community as a linguistic minority. While we don’t all speak the same variety of Spanish or have the same levels of fluency or proximity to it, the linguistic identities of our 13.8 million Latinx students are far too often repressed, ignored, misunderstood, underappreciated, or not effectively leveraged as the enormous assets that they are. Embracing and cultivating our linguistic heritage and diversity is an advantage that must be used to benefit all students’ learning outcomes.

U.S. education language policies have been largely shaped by adherence to monolingualism, citing English as “the language of economic opportunity” and insisting that languages other than English are a disadvantage. The vast majority of Latinx – and all multilingual – students’ educational models subsequently take a subtractive bilingualism approach that focuses on English-only instruction with few or no opportunities to intentionally use and leverage the linguistic knowledge and expertise they bring in addition to their English repertoire. Yet although the discourse that bilingualism is a disadvantage in acquiring English proficiency is pervasive, research consistently demonstrates the opposite is true. Knowledge of Spanish and other languages are assets for English learning: bilingual students develop metalinguistic skills including phonological awareness at an earlier age than monolingual children, have a higher vocabulary range, and demonstrate stronger working memory, executive control, multi-tasking and conflict resolution. Enforcing monolingualism can also be emotionally harmful and culturally repressive.

The sheer size of our Latinx student population is reason enough to urgently alter the ways we address Latinx linguistic assets. Latinx is a pan-ethnic and pan-racial designation for those of us who identify according to the U.S. Census as having “Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” which includes more than 60 million people who trace their ancestry to over twenty Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. Latinx heritage therefore incorporates hundreds of Indigenous languages in addition to many varieties of Latin American Spanish whose lexicons, syntax, and phonologies have been influenced by West African languages. Yet although the diversity of Latinx students’ linguistic identities brings invaluable knowledge to our classrooms, rarely are these unique language contexts recognized and affirmed. Latinx students represent 27% of the K-12 student population and 77% of English language learners. By 2030 one in five U.S. workers will be Latinx. If we effectively leveraged the linguistic knowledge of over one-fourth of our students, we would build a national workforce better poised for economic and social mobility. An international commission recently found that Anglophone nations like the U.S. are simply “not producing enough speakers of languages other than English to meet 21st-century needs.”

TNTP partners with districts across the country to support multilingual learners in various ways. In Texas’s Edgewood Independent School District, we partnered to create a literacy vision that was inclusive of the district’s bilingual and biliterate students and to create the Multilingual Services Department’s 2022-23 strategy. In California’s Bay Area, we led intensive teacher professional development focused on effective language instructional practices for multilingual learners in math. To affirm Latinx students’ identities and build stronger systems and structures to bolster the underutilized advantages Latinx linguistic identities bring, we encourage educators to build learning experiences that thoughtfully integrate multiple languages and to ask ourselves:

  • Are my students’ linguistic identities being affirmed as an asset in their educational experience? Do we honor, explore, and include these identities in our daily instructional practices?
  • Do all students have equitable access to high-quality instructional materials and resources that are culturally and linguistically affirming? Does instruction support content and language development in a way that leverages linguistic identities and utilizes linguistic knowledge of Spanish and other languages to strengthen learning in English?
  • Are we actively engaging Latinx families and communities as trusted partners and advocates, recognizing they are the most knowledgeable source of information about our students? Do Latinx families have culturally and linguistically appropriate access to the resources they need to make the best decisions for their students such as academic data, latest research, program choice, opportunities for authentic partnership, and information on how to be the best advocate for their children?
  • Are we moving our classrooms, schools, and systems towards additive bilingual models that ensure Latinx students have opportunities to use both of their languages inside and outside of school, and that they have a desire to maintain both?

To ensure the social and economic mobility of all our students in our globally interconnected world, “American monolingualism is an insufficient basis for success.” The power of our linguistic identities must be realized by creating the conditions for all students to truly be their language by honoring, respecting, and engaging all of their linguistic knowledge and strengths in their learning processes.

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TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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