“Language is more than what I speak; it’s who I am. I am bilingual. I speak English and Spanish, but I feel more myself when I use Spanish.” “If you just see my English side, you don’t see one-hundred percent me. … I am both my languages, and I want people to notice all that I am.”
Arely Rodríguez Leos wrote these powerful words when she was a fifth grade student in a dual language program. They speak to the importance of language to her identity.
Arely’s essay evokes the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, who wrote in her book Borderlands that “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language.” Much has been written about the centrality of language to personal identity.
What are language stories?
For the past several years, I have been facilitating a structured activity for sharing language stories in groups. I have found this to be an engaging, informative, and transformative experience for participants. Many reflect afterwards that it was the first time they considered their own language story, or at least it was the first time they had been asked to share it.
Why share language stories?
Sharing language stories in a professional community helps prepare educators to build learning environments where students are empowered to be fully themselves, where their identities’ are more fully recognized, where their multilingual and multicultural personhood are valued. To better understand the language experiences of students and their families, educators need to understand their own experiences and consider how those have shaped their attitudes and beliefs toward multilingual education. By sharing their own language stories and by listening to those of others, people develop greater understanding and, through that understanding, deeper empathy.
This tills the soil to plant the seeds of cultural proficiency and multilingual education. The stories echo scholarly writing about language ideologies, but through this activity, people inductively learn about language and identity. Building from the lived experiences of real people told first-person, it develops a safer space to discuss and, when necessary, to argue about the mission and vision for multilingual learners and the associated programs and practices.
Sharing language stories also develops a strong professional community in a short amount of time. Through sharing about language in a safe space, people are much more willing to share the deeply personal — even with complete strangers — especially when the activity is structured to make sharing less intimidating.
One of the things that makes structured sharing of language stories so powerful is that everyone participates, whether they speak two or more languages, African-American vernacular, a regional dialect, or just “standard English” (note the quotation marks, because we know that there is no such thing as “standard English”). This reduces the likelihood of tokenization, where one person is called upon to represent the experience of an entire group. It also helps people to see that the deep connection of language to identity is universal, not restricted to certain groups. Many participants comment afterward that they did not think they had a language story, but hearing those of others and having time to think and talk about their own made them realize that they indeed do have a language story, and that their experiences with language significantly shaped the person they are and their own beliefs about multilingual education in school.
Every language story is unique and personal, but several themes emerge. Three of the most common and yet most powerful are language loss, dual identity, and the role schools play.
Language loss refers to the forgetting of a family language, typically across generations but sometimes for an individual in their own lifetime. One example of this occurs when children from multilingual families are immersed in English-only classrooms upon attending school, leading to the gradual displacement of the family language. This is typically a three generation process, with immigrant grandparents speaking mostly another language, parents speaking the family language at home and English at school, and then the third-generation children speaking only English at home and school. One manifestation of this feeling of loss may be a perceived mismatch between membership in a cultural group but not speaking the language commonly associated with it. Another manifestation is the inability to communicate deeply with grandparents or with other parts of the extended family.
Dual identity refers to feeling like different people in different settings. For example, someone raised in a Spanish speaking family but learning English at school may feel Latino at home but “white” outside of the home. This dual identity can foster pride, but it can also painfully result in someone feeling inadequate in both settings—too white in family situations but too Latino outside of the home.
Participants will almost always remark on the role that school plays in language stories, sometimes positive like Arely’s experience in dual language, but more often negative. Someone will usually share how they, their parents, or their grandparents were prohibited from speaking another language and even punished physically. Others will observe that their home language was never acknowledged or valued in the classroom, with English being the only language that mattered. Some then question whether their own actions as an educator, although well-intentioned, might have a negative impact on students.
There are many other themes, which I may address in future blog posts.
The Process: Creating a Safe Space
Language stories are deeply personal, and there are sometimes tears when people share. It is important to create a safe space where people can be vulnerable; to use structures and techniques that give people time to think, prepare, and rehearse what they are going to say; to set time limits so that everyone has an equal opportunity to share; and ultimately to make speaking optional. However, after facilitating this activity scores of times in various group sizes, I have never had someone pass. The structures and tight facilitation break down the affective filters that can inhibit full participation.
That said, there are other ways to open up communication about people’s experiences with language. Just bringing up the topic in meetings or in casual conversations can get things started. Over the past 15 years, I have learned a lot from my hair stylist about her children’s language experiences — first in standard district schools, then in a charter school, and now in college. My dentist recently shared about her family’s language loss; her parents were immigrants and now her children only speak English. One assignment for aspiring principals in the graduate school class I teach is to ask five people for their language stories. Many participants in the sessions I have led told me afterward that this led to their asking about their parents’ language stories and learning how their own language identity was shaped by decisions their parents made.
Language Stories with Students and Families
I wrote here mostly about facilitated language story sessions in professional communities, but there is also tremendous power in listening to the experiences with language of students and their families — and incorporating the sharing of language stories into the classroom and into family engagement. Perhaps I will write more about that in a future blog entry.
Facilitating language story sessions has become one of my favorite things to do. I always learn something new from the participants' stories and the subsequent group discussion. I consider it a gift to be trusted with hearing these personal memories. I believe this moves our work forward and leads to better outcomes for students because it rapidly strengthens professional relationships in an authentic manner, it enhances social emotional learning programs for all students because language is part of all of our identities, and it deepens educators' understanding of the affective aspects of bilingual and ESL programs.
I also learn more about myself each time I facilitate a session, because I too am part of the group and share some aspect of my language story each time. I always dig a little deeper than the last time and I gain a little more insight into my own story by hearing the stories of others.