The Politics of Bilingualism

by Corey · 16 comments

I wrote this article back in 2005 for the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network . What is disappointing to me is that things don’t seem to have changed much since then.  Or have they?

By Corey Heller

Have you heard of 16-year-old Zach Rubio? Did you know that he was suspended for speaking Spanish in the halls of his public school?

If you don’t speak Spanish and if you aren’t a teenager, why would Zach Rubio and his dilemma have anything to do with you?

Actually, Zach Rubio has everything to do with you, your family and all of us who are raising our children multilingually and multiculturally. Zach Rubio is the quintessential poster-boy for the politics of bilingualism inside and outside of the school grounds.

Jennifer Watts, the principal of Zach’s school, and the authority who gave the suspension orders, wrote, in her explanation for the suspension, “This is not the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school.”

Say what?!  Zach had actually been asked in the past to not speak Spanish at school?

She didn’t say that he was asked not to speak Spanish during English classroom instruction or not to speak it in response to his teachers. She did not say that he was asked to not speak Spanish in any specific situations at all.  She simply said, “at school.”

This is where Zach Rubio’s suspension has everything to do with us and our experiences as bilingual/bicultural families in the US, regardless of language and culture.

As we all know, children in our society spend many of their waking hours in school, where they form friendships, emulate peers, and look up to their teachers and school administrators. As a nation, we sometimes lament the power that the outside world has over the lives of our children, from the influence of language to the overpowering desire to fit into the community culture.

For multilingual and multicultural families in particular, a child’s healthy development of self identity depends on a balance between life within the home and life outside the home.

Therefore, it is absolutely essential that our children have the opportunity to fully experience the society in which they live, yet at the same time, the bonds which tie a family together must be respected by our schools, workplaces and society as a whole.

If they are not, then we take the chance that the youth of our 21st century will feel that they must make a choice between who they (and their family) are and what the world is telling them they should be. This is a volatile situation, to say the least.

Each of us may assume that suspension for speaking a second language in the halls of a school is not acceptable, but why do we assume this?

Are you sure it isn’t a punishable crime to speak a second language in your country? How can you be so certain? Are you certain that if you are in a public building you do not first have to leave the building and then stand 15 feet away from the entrance before speaking your native language so that others can’t hear you, like anti-smoking laws in some U.S. states?

Making the assumption that we can speak our native languages anywhere we like comes as second nature to us. Language and culture are so intrinsically a part of us, we assume that laws must be in place to protect our rights.  But ultimately it all comes down to politicians and judges in their roles of authority over the matter.

Ironically, it took a legal immigrant, Zach’s father, to remind the school authorities that they were not following their own policies: “So I went to the principal and said, ‘My son, he’s not suspended for fighting, right? He’s not suspended for disrespecting anyone. He’s suspended for speaking Spanish in the hall?’ So I asked her to show me the written policy about that. But they didn’t have one.”

Many would argue that this isn’t a language issue at all, that this is an immigration issue and has everything to do with our tentative relationship with Mexico on the U.S. southern border.

As T.R. Reid writes in his article for the Washington Post, Spanish At School Translates to Suspension, “Conflicts are bursting out nationwide over bilingual education, ‘English-only’ laws, Spanish-language publications and advertising, and other linguistic collisions. Language concerns have been a key aspect of the growing political movement to reduce immigration.”

Yes, this is an immigration issue; an issue of economics and fear. To many, Zach Rubio represents the loss of U.S. jobs, a lower standard of living, lack of healthcare for Americans and anything else that can be piled on.

Nevertheless, we can not let this detract us from the fact that the same laws that protect Zach so that he can speak Spanish in the halls of his public school are the exact same laws that protect you and me so that we can speak a second language in the halls of schools and other public institutions.

It is possible that no one would complain about my children speaking German in the halls of their school because German is not necessarily associated with poverty, mass immigration and a decline in the prosperity of the U.S. Yet, what if all of a sudden Germans were the “bad guys” (again) and speaking German in the school hall was a no-no?

I certainly would be relieved to know that laws stand between my children speaking our home language and a disciplining school authority, no matter what our income bracket happened to be at the time.

The irony in all of this is that where language is seen as a global asset by most countries around the world, Zach’s bilingualism is seen as a threat. Rather than praising Zach for continuing to use his language which connects him to his family, especially during the difficult teenage years when family ties are most tenuous, he is outright warned and ultimately punished for using his family language.

Would the 21st century not be an exciting era in which to live when someone like Zach were encouraged to share his language skills with monolingual children and peers in the schools; to visit classrooms with Spanish teachers to inspire children to be like the cool 16 year old who values family, does his homework and speaks Spanish AND English, rather than associating Spanish speaking with gangs and violence and poverty?

All multilingual and multicultural families want is for the world to understand that it is possible to value a multilingual/multicultural citizenry while at the same time cherishing and valuing the bonds of community and country.

This dichotomy we see today simply can no longer continue – there are simply too many of us! Look around and you will find multicultural and multilingual families everywhere, families who are devoted both to their country and their native origins and languages.

It is too late for the world to ignore this fact and, as Janet Murguia, the national president of La Raza, says about the case with Zach, “A fully bilingual young man like Zach Rubio should be considered an asset to the community.”  Amen!

The suspension of Zach Rubio may be an isolated, extreme example of attitudes toward language but it highlights the experiences many face when speaking their second language in public. How many times has someone been told, “Why can’t you just learn our language?” when speaking with their child on the playground or the bus?

Zach’s story reminds us that it is time for our world to think outside the box, to accept the paradigm shift of our changing world and to come together to find ways to retain our unique cultures and identities while at the same time respecting the multilingual and multicultural mix of our 21st century families.

This was written back in 2005.  What are your thoughts about the state of Politics and Bilingualism in the United States today?  Has it changed?  Has it evolved for better or worse?  Does the average American still use the term “bilingual” to mean a Spanish-speaking-immigrant?  And how often do those of us who are bilingual in the United States perpetuate the image of a bilingual as a “Spanish speaker” each time we use the term “bilingual” to mean “someone who speaks Spanish” rather than someone who “speaks two languages”?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nayr February 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm

The above is sad and, unfortunately, true in some educational situations. What is really sad is that educators fall into the trap of language politics and make decisions that go against the very philosophy of education: motivating learners, developing a positive self-image in children, bringing out the best in young learners, opening up their minds to the world, sharing knowledge. How can we do this if a fundamental part of children’s existence – their mother tongue – is being stunted, persecuted, and denigrated?


2 Melissa Ramirez April 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm

I think things have not change much! I have been in the states now for four years and still some times a American comes to me if am speaking Spanish or helping some one to translate and say “Why can you just talk American or English?” My response “Why can you learn our language so when you go to my Country you can communicate with us Because we have to learn English to take care of you when you decide to go on vacation!”


3 Gabriela Painter April 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Thats a good one!


4 Amanda March 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I dis-agree. We live in the United States and we only speak English/American. We also have a condo in Cabo San Lucas. We have had this condo for more than 6 years. I do not excpect people of Mexico to speak English. There have been more times than I can count where the person I am talking to does not speak English. I had to buy a translator so I know what the waiter, vendor, or whom ever is saying. They don’t learn English for us Americans. I would not expect them to because I am in their country. So no your country does not learn English to take care of “us” when we vacation!.


5 Daniela August 9, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Guess what,
Though English is currently the most spoken language, the U.S.A. does not have an official language.
Look it up!
And since most the world does speak English, especially in tourist areas they do accommodate for “unilingual” Americans, although in their country there is an official language in the constitution…


6 Victoria FERAUGE April 29, 2011 at 4:28 am

Unfortunately this type of attitude is not exclusive to the U.S. When my French/American children first went to public nursery here in France I was rather started to have one of the teachers chastise me for speaking English to my children. “They will never learn to speak French, Madame, if you do that!” I’ve been to many a parent meeting at the schools my children have attended and have heard a Brazilian parent criticized for speaking Portuguese and North African parents criticized for speaking Arabic. I find this tragic on two fronts: as an immigrant it made me feel awful and at odds with the larger culture and it really didn’t help during those tough early years when I was fighting to keep my language alive in my home and my children were getting the message at school that speaking another language was a Bad Thing.


7 Joyau Penard April 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm

I have had a similar experience here in Germany, speaking English to my children in a bakery, the employee asked (in German) – so, are your children only learning English? – I was not apologetic when I answered – No, they are learning German, French AND English.
– It also seems to make an impression when I add – I’m a speech therapist. Perhaps more parents need to be encouraged by professionals to state that – “Actually, my (speech therapist, pediatrician, etc) recommends that I continue speaking my native language with my children – imagine how easier it will be for them in later school years when everyone else will just be beginning!”


8 َAli June 19, 2011 at 9:14 pm

This situation is worse in so called developing countries.The speakers of second language or the language other than the formal language feel inferior to the formal one and even often they are mocked on national Tv. In some countries even though the number of them are great but they don’t play a part in society they live in and they are fighting for their rights.This is a basic human right they are robbed from it.


9 Shaun Gisbourne July 28, 2011 at 5:45 am

Fear of the unknown at work. Plain and simple. I wonder what Ms Watts reaction to Dora The Explorer would be?


10 Alex April 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm

My mother was given a bad look last month for speaking to me ( her daughter) in German at the mall . We were getting our purchases rung up , and the cashier looked so disgusted. It is hard sometimes to continue outside the home, as we are taught not to ” Exclude” the public. I have to get out of the habit, carry on Zach!


11 Yá Lí Shan Délí Yá May 4, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I think inside, even though I love my language learning, the real reason I struggle with insecurity about Spanish is because my town associates Spanish in a bad way, and the kids here try not to speak it with their parents . So I prefer speaking German with my mother, and have no insecuritites about attending Chinese School and speaking Mandarin in public. But when I think of speaking Spanish, I fear too much what people will think of me. It is definilty something to overcome.


12 Robert J. LaCava October 13, 2012 at 10:46 pm

We are a multicultural nation as is easily noticed in any of our larger cities. I personally embrace aspects of four different languages and cultures and I love them all. There are times when etiquette may serve to separate us but we must nevertheless keep our hearts and minds open to the nuances of all cultures. Suspension appears to have been a grievous policy here. One wonders about political tensions.


13 Margaret Nahmias October 26, 2012 at 6:13 am

This exactly why I decided to learn Spanish again . I have seen this too much. but I can understand the need to have a common language, but this not the way to deal with it. There are so many language groups here , how are we all going to communicate.


14 Eric August 10, 2013 at 3:02 am

Unless it is a school aimed at teachinh English: there are no cause for such descrimination. The prinicipal has to show you which part of the it is written in the school text and where the student signed for it. The US do not have an official language like the Brits don’t have a constitution. Even in Canada where language laws and the respective langauge of the scholls are taken seriously: recess are free for all.

But this can be worse in European coutries. My wife was initially genied a long term visa to stay in France because we were told that my wife speaking Russian to our kids (OPOL) and us speaking English bewteen each other (more fair as it is not the native language of any of us) was an obstacle tou her integration (I am a fRench citizen also). I went mad and I ask with line of French law was prescribing what language should be use ib the house if not the bedroom. Now she is French citizen and had to pass a language exam to sho she could enter university in France. But we moved back in BC/Canada where 40% of people practice a native language beside English (French is a very minority language in BC but still with its own school)

I am sorry to say but this type of abuse is definitely bigotery/racism at a time when American presidential candidates conduct primaires debats in Spanish!


15 Eric August 10, 2013 at 3:27 am

Bilingual in the US might mean English/Spanish. In Canada it is meant for English/French. In Belgium French/Flemmish in Barcelona Castillano(Spanish)/Catalan.

When I moved to British Columiba to suburb we chose is 40% not born in Canada and only 60% have English has a mother tongue… I realise that in that part of Canada meant: English/ Korean,Mandarin, Penjabi, Farci… Most people were bilingual but not bilingual as expected…


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