School of Thought: Bilingual students should be celebrated, not discouraged

Seeing little faces sing a preschool rhyme, their eyes bright with joy, can bring a smile to anyone’s face. But when I saw my students at Hoover Intergenerational Care (the preschool just across the street from USC Village) sing, I was smiling because they weren’t just singing joyfully — they were singing joyfully in Spanish.

The song was “La Araña Pequeñita,” the Spanish version of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and every student was singing as loud as they could — whether they spoke Spanish or not. The majority of Hoover students are bilingual learners. Many of the kids speak Spanish at home, and as a result, the staff integrated both English and Spanish into the curriculum.

We would sing songs like “La Araña Pequeñita” frequently, and when we read books to them, we translated keywords to encourage vocabulary development in both languages.

Supportive language learning that treats every language as equally important is crucial for bilingual students in early childhood education. At Hoover, it was easy; since most of the kids already spoke some Spanish, being bilingual wasn’t different or shameful. And the students who didn’t speak Spanish didn’t feel left out either. In fact, one of my favorite memories at Hoover was teaching in Spanish to one of my students who didn’t speak Spanish at home. He was so excited to be learning something new, and so curious about the topic, that he didn’t mind being taught in a language he was less familiar with.

But in classrooms where very few students are bilingual, where not all bilingual students speak the same language, learning two languages without the necessary support can hinder bilingual students.

As a child, I would speak Hindi and English at home. Both my parents grew up speaking Hindi but were also fluent in English, so I felt comfortable using both languages equally. But when my parents dropped me off or picked me up from school, I wouldn’t want them to speak in Hindi to me because none of my peers could understand it.

While I never had issues learning either language, I felt ashamed speaking in Hindi around my friends from school. As I grew up, I used it less and less. I still understand the language and can carry a basic conversation in Hindi with my grandparents, but I often feel like I’ve lost a part of my cultural heritage because I spent years distancing myself from the language. At school, English was clearly dominant, while the languages that other classmates and I spoke at home were never acknowledged.

Instead of ignoring them, we should celebrate the languages students bring to the classroom and encourage their development as a positive aspect of their learning and identity.

It also exposes English-only learners to new cultures and languages, which has demonstrated proven benefits for cognitive development and language proficiency. According to the Rand Corporation, students in dual-language immersion programs outperformed peers in English-only classrooms by 13 percent on state standardized testing, and were 3 percentage points more proficient in English by the sixth grade.

Encouraging bilingualism at a young age also serves students in their future — in many career fields, knowing multiple languages is a desired skill. In this case, not only does the individual benefit, but also society as a whole — as our world becomes more globalized, communicating with individuals from different cultures is increasingly important.

Hoover and other schools like it should be regarded as models for early childhood bilingual education. English should be equal to other languages — supporting children in their native languages is one of the best ways to make their cultural heritage feel valued and important.

When students’ home languages are celebrated and encouraged in classrooms, it benefits everyone — the students feel supported in their bilingualism, and the effects on their peers in terms of cultural and language immersion are advantageous as well. Too often, languages other than English are treated as lesser when they really should be championed to the same extent in learning environments.

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also a multimedia editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “School of Thought,” runs every other Thursday.