In 2008, a Catholic school in Kansas banned students from speaking Spanish. It spurred expulsions, debates and a federal case, but the rule stood. Today, with the exception of foreign language class-time, many schools across the country practice an unofficial ban on speaking Spanish.
While detentions and demerits have historically been reserved for inappropriate or violent behavior, such as disrespecting a teacher or fighting, they are now being dealt out to students for speaking to each other in their native language. As is the case in Rita and Marco Portales’ book, Quality Education for Latinos and Latinas, teachers, without knowing what is actually being said, will often issue detentions and cite reasons such as ‘the student was cursing in Spanish’, when indeed he/she was not.
Of course, some students are not old enough to receive detention, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also being punished. For the kids who enter the school system primarily speaking Spanish, the worst consequence isn’t staying an extra hour after school, but rather the loss of their first language and being robbed of the chance to be truly bilingual.
As of the 2010 census, Latinos make up 16.5% of the U.S. population or 50 million; 1 out of 4 are under 18 years old. Not all Latinos speak Spanish, but for some, including kids in all levels of our school system, it is all they speak.
Consider the girls from Latinitas, a Texas-based non-profit club committed to empowering young Latinas through media and technology. Many are directly affected by this issue and noted a variety of reasons of why they prefer expressing themselves in Spanish: it’s easier, they don’t want to forget the language, that’s what their family speaks, and they want to express their culture.
“Students enter the classroom speaking Spanish only. The school system transitions these children into English within a few years. The goal is to speak English fast. These students are able to pick up social language easily but they are not given a sufficient amount of time to learn the academic language needed to be successful,” said Jaclyn Vasquez, director and lead teacher for a Head Start Preschool in Chicago.
Vasquez has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education; a master’s in bilingual literacy education and is currently working on her doctorate in educational leadership. She was recently named a legend in early childhood education by the Chicago public school system.
“Children need to learn and understand the rules of their native language first before they can understand the rules of a second language,” Vasquez explained. “If they don’t fully comprehend the rules of the first language, they won’t fully be able to understand the rules of a second language. Children can learn English and their conversational skills can be very good, but their academic level never reaches or surpasses the 4th or 5th grade reading and writing level.”
Encouraging others to notice the lack of multilingual signs in schools, Vasquez said we are telling students the dominant language is the “right” language. “Language is a part of one’s cultural identity. We should be celebrating and exploring differences daily and not just celebrating it once a year by making a piñata on Cinco de Mayo.”
As Spanish-speaking children enter the English only classroom it creates a recipe for disaster. “Children do not want to speak their home language at home because now they think it’s wrong or unwanted and they eventually lose major components of their language. This creates a child that is not truly fluent in either Spanish or English. It also breaks down the communication between parents and their children. Many parents are not learning English and have a difficult time communicating and/or disciplining their own children. This leads to an even bigger problem,” said Vasquez.
Another factor adding fuel to this fiery issue is the treatment of the kids who enter the school system speaking English. As they get older, they have the chance to learn a second language, commonly Spanish, which helps them get into college and attain higher-paying jobs. “They [native English speakers] are given the opportunity to be bilingual, while those who originally spoke Spanish are having their language taken away and have such low academic levels that they are forced to take more English courses and remedial classes because they never fully understood the rules of either language,” said Vasquez.
“We are solidifying the status quo. The rich (those that get the additive courses in another language to get into a good college and get a good paying job) get richer, and the poor (those that had their language subtracted from them, forced into remedial courses, giving them a complex to think they are stupid or dumb, hate school and many do dropout) stay poor,” she continued.
In a push for progress, Vasquez suggested teachers build partnerships with parents to show them how they can participate in school and encourage them to teach their children how to read and write in Spanish at home. In addition, “teachers that don’t speak Spanish should take courses and attempt to connect with their own students. Spanish-speaking children can be very fluent in two different languages. It is very unfortunate that many teachers feel as if they do enough with lesson plans and grading papers that it is easier to ask students to just speak English. What they miss is the connection to truly making a difference in a child’s life,” said Vasquez.
“We need to encourage and celebrate our cultural and language differences. We need to promote this at home and at school.”
Institutions across the country are now telling many young Latinos and Latinas they cannot communicate, learn, or express themselves in their first language. If it goes unchecked, this unofficial ban on speaking Spanish can become an unofficial restriction on minority bilingualism.