Celebrating the Bilingual Child
It’s early, 7:15 a.m. to be exact. School does not start until 8 a.m. English Language Learners such as soft-spoken high school senior Fatima Bortillo have arrived early to receive tutoring and sharpen their English language skills with Greeley Central High School’s CLD teachers. Fatima is meeting for the first time with CLD teacher Nathan Will. Will, a new teacher at the high school, shared his excitement, “This is our very first session together. She’s inspiring.”
Fatima is from El Salvador, a tumultuous country filled with violence powerful enough to cut, shoot, and tear its way into the homes of many families. The country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2017, 60.07 homicides occurred per 100,000 inhabitants. For comparison, the homicide rate in the United States is 5.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Fatima’s father moved the family north in January 2017 seeking asylum and the promise of a brighter future in the United States.
Armed with a warrior- like drive, Fatima sees the new opportunities available to her as well as what she can contribute to the new country she is now a part of. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, she loves learning English and views becoming bilingual as a gateway to higher education in the U.S. “I want to continue into higher education. I want to go to UNC, and study Electrical Engineering.” When asked what she wants to do with her degree, her eyes lit up, “Build airplanes.”
But, learning English does not mean leaving her native tongue behind. Knowing English and still mastering her native language in AP Spanish class provides a wider range of opportunities and lifelong benefits: benefits that Fatima embraces, and benefits that CLD teachers see in their bilingual students.
“In the classroom, I find bilingual and multilingual students, which we have a lot of in District 6, have a more rich relationship with words and ideas because they are drawing upon a wider linguistic background,” writes Nathan Will. “Fellow colleagues and I have observed that bilingual students have a more nuanced understanding of structures and a flexibility in relating concepts to one another, and this is a skill that can be applied across all disciplines.”
District 6 is home to many bilingual students from many diverse backgrounds. More than 32 percent of District 6 students come from a home where a language other than English is spoken, and 23 percent of students are considered English Language Learners. Since October was National Celebrate the Bilingual Child Month, we wanted to explore and celebrate the bilingualism in District 6 by giving you a small glimpse into the lives of one of our bilingual students and the instructors who work with them. Our bilingual students are a bridge between multiple cultures and bring valuable skills to the classroom and workforce that should be celebrated and, most importantly, appreciated.
Bilingualism also has economical and financial benefits. Being a bilingual himself, Will often hears from those around him that they wished they could speak another language. “As adults, we seem to see the benefits of speaking another language clearly, but I don’t get the impression that most students fully realize the extent to which bilingualism can be a lucrative professional asset.”
However, Fatima does see that her growing bilingualism can provide her job opportunities within and beyond the scope of her future Electrical Engineering degree, “I can translate”, she says. With the global community becoming a true community, employers are in need of bilingual and multilingual employees and are willing to pay more to attract and retain these employees. A report released by the New American Economy found that employers are actively searching for employees who speak Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish in high-skilled positions such as industrial engineers, financial managers, and editors.
While the marketability of bilingualism is an attractive draw, there is also an enriching cultural benefit to knowing more than one language. Bilingual individuals tend to have a greater appreciation of other cultures (multiculturalism), and as Will and his colleagues have noticed are “...quite empathetic and quick to help others whether as official mentors giving tours of the building or explaining academic content.”
Fatima has experienced this willingness to help firsthand when she joined the Culture Club at the high school. Fellow bilingual student and Culture Club member Mona Liza who is from Eritrea, reached out to Fatima when she was new to the school. With a smile, Fatima recalls their first meeting, “‘Fatima, you know Spanish. I know English. Let’s help one another.” Together they are sharpening their English skills, teaching one another their native language, and working diligently to achieve their academic goals while gaining a global perspective through language.