Celebrating the power of bilingualism with OneAmerica

Brenda Kay Neth October 5, 2017 0

The Speak Your Language campaign seeks to promote the cognitive, social, and professional benefits of bilingualism, while distributing information about state resources for dual language learners. The launch event happened on August 24, 2017. • Courtesy Photo

“What makes us American is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray. What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals—that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation. That’s how America has traveled this far. That’s how, if we keep at it, we will ultimately reach that more perfect union”

—Former President Barack Obama


People packed the Southside Commons in Columbia City on August 24 to see the unveiling of the second phase of OneAmerica’s Speak your Language Campaign. Anabel Quintero, OneAmerica Education Manager, explained that the campaign began in 2014 with parent ambassadors helping promote bilingualism in schools. Phase two of the campaign includes a website for teachers, parents, and students engaged in embracing home languages. Another recent victory was the passing of a dual language bill HB 1445, in the state Legislature this past May, and the nationwide World Language Credit and Seal of Biliteracy, now available in 39 states for high school seniors.

The evening celebration included singing from the Jose Marti Child Development Dual Language Program from El Centro de la Raza, as well as dancing and poetry from West African drummer and singer Sumayya Diop. Pamela Clelalakam, who is Coastal Salish, asked for healing for all present and urged listeners not to give into the “melting pot” philosophy, but to cherish their own separate cultures and identities.

Roxana Norouzi, deputy director of OneAmerica, emphasized that the purpose of the campaign was to build a holistic approach toward changing the narrative surrounding bilingualism. She said community members, leaders, and educators have helped uplift the image of those who are bilingual. Through these efforts, she said, there is movement away from assimilation.

For her, the campaign is “a way to hold a reclaiming of culture and language in our community. We should be supported to keep our culture so that it should be valued.”

At the #SpeakYourLanguage launch, Tachini Pete, author of the first Salish-English dictionary, discusses the ways in which indigenous languages were erased. “I don’t want any kids to not be able to speak to or understand their grandparents.” • Courtesy Photo

Bernie Koontz, director of the English Language Learners work group, said that to bring forward the power of bilingualism, people need to acknowledge race. Koontz is also a member of the Steering Committee on The Road Map Project, which is part of a collective involving education, leadership, community, and legislative efforts. OneAmerica staffs the English Language Learners Committee within this project. Koontz and others have rallied to close the opportunity gap within the Road Map Region, which includes Federal Way, Auburn, Seattle, Tukwila, Highline, Kent, and Renton. 125,000 students attend schools in this region.

The Road Map Project aims to equip 70 percent of these students with college or career credentials by 2030. Norouzi explained that students test within four areas in their home language: speaking, writing, listening and reading. Those who meet criteria within the four categories receive four credits, called the World Language Credit, toward graduation as well as a Seal of Biliteracy on their school transcript. When they apply for colleges, their record indicates the value, ability, and importance of bilingualism to the two and four year colleges they’re applying to. The English Language Learners (ELL) work committee spearheaded both the World Language Credit and Seal of Biliteracy programs.

The celebration also acknowledged the first dictionary for the Salish language in Montana, produced by Tachini Pete. At present, there are only 40 speakers of this language. Pete is also co-founder of Nkwusm. a Salish Language Revitalization Institute in Montana.

At the celebration, Sharon Cronin offered people the opportunity to identify yucca, ginger root, and plantain within their own language. Cronin was demonstrating the Total Physical Response methodology used for English Language Learners. She would repeat back in her own indigenous Mexican language the three plants, then ask others to repeat the words, and then repeat back in their own native languages. Quintero of OneAmerica said Cronin’s work is just one of the many schools of thought in reaching the diversity of students who are English language learners.

Lastly, Dr. LaWanda Smith, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), spoke in support of OneAmerica’s endeavors. The PSESD, which helps stream funds into the Road Map Project, is one of the funders which received a grant from Race to the Top. This is a $4.35 billion United States Department of Education competitive grant that awards innovative and much needed reform funding to state and local K-12 school districts. Community Center for Education Results (CCER), is the non-profit agency that provides staffing, communication, and data support for the Road Map Project.

At the end of the event, everyone who was willing to participate in publicizing and helping increase the positive impacts of bilingualism was asked to step to the front of the room. The front of the room filled with people.

“A movement is not a flash of light, it is a flame, a torch passed from one generation to the next and every so often we are blessed with moments-where the smolder transforms to blaze again and we are forced to race down the path of progress.”

—Written by Mayda deValle for the “Our Moment” video airing on YouTube.

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