A case for dual-language immersion programs for Latinx American youth

For many of my Latinx youngsters who have grown up in Southern California, our contact with Spanish comes in a variety of ways. We might speak it with our parents or grandparents from a young age. Others might learn in high school — the only time language acquisition is truly emphasized. But in an English-focused and assimilationist childhood, many often lose critical and scholarly engagement with Spanish at a young age when learning a second language is much easier than it is later in life. Reflecting on my own experiences, bilingual education isn’t only just a way for the Latinx community to communicate with one another, but it is also a means of cultural preservation. 

Over the summer, I worked as Literacy Leader for WISE Readers to Leaders, a non-profit organization that aims to maintain summer literacy proficiency among various elementary schools across Los Angeles. It was my first experience teaching 12 third grade students and teaching in general. While the goal of the program was to practice reading in English, I reached an unexpected obstacle: a few of my students could only speak Spanish. 

One of the students’ names was Santiago. He had recently moved to the United States from Mexico, and thankfully, 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 proficiency in Spanish for his poor English skills. Like many who immigrated from Mexico, he learned English gradually. But, his academic Spanish skills 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 greatly reduced the number of bilingual education programs by requiring public schools to teach students who had a below basic understanding of English in special classes that taught purely in English. But in 2016, voters repealed the restrictions of Prop 227 through the California Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education Act, allowing schools to freely teach classes using a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 are proficient in one language and learning another, dual language immersion programs are especially effective. Dual language programs are intended for native speakers of English and for native speakers of Spanish, with the goal of cross-cultural proficiency and understanding. Here both languages are prioritized and grow together.

Many of my students were children of Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan immigrants. Many of them lit up like lightbulbs any time their heritage and language were brought up in the classroom. One girl, Luna, loved sharing her culture: “Did you know the Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala? Have you ever played Lotería? Mr. Andrew, are you Mexican?” 

Speaking to them in Spanish was a special cultural connection we created regardless of their skillset in Spanish or English. Their minds were rich with the power of the two languages since — outside of the summer program — Spanish was often overlooked in their education. 

Growing up in Southern California, I have met a range of Latinx people with a range of Spanish-speaking abilities and cultural ties. For my friends who have considered themselves “no sabo kids,” many have expressed a desire to be closer to their culture and Spanish language. 

“No sabo” is a telling phrase that most children of Latinx immigrants avoid so they can keep their Spanish-speaking credibility. For those unaware, “no sabo” is a misconjugation of the Spanish translation of “I don’t know.” It’s an innocuous mistake, yet saying this phrase automatically attracts first light-hearted ridicule then full-blown scrutiny. On TikTok especially, the term “no sabo kids” has become a deceptive mode of categorizing monolingual Latinx teens in the U.S. as “uncultured.” 

For many, being bilingual is a source of pride, as bearing your culture is something to be celebrated especially within underrepresented communities. However, the term “no sabo kid” has created an unnecessary bilingual barrier for embracing one’s Latinx identity when, in reality, there is no right way to be Latinx. 

Being monolingual shouldn’t be a source of shame in the same way that accessibility to dual-language immersion programs shouldn’t be limited, as they can be a powerful tool of cultural enlightenment. Considering the growing population of bilingual Californians, dual-language immersion programs are necessary. And thankfully, they are coming. 

The California Department of Education has proposed that half of all K-12 will have participated in some sort of bilingual program by 2030. By 2040, they aim for three out of four students to be proficient in two or more languages, earning a State Seal of Biliteracy. 

We are long past the traditional English-only schooling system. For my friends who feel disconnected from their culture, dual-language immersion programs can be one factor that may rekindle their connection to their language and heritage.