After civil war broke out in Somalia, my family moved to Uganda in search of security. Following years in an indeterminate state as refugees, we finally landed in Seattle.
My first encounter with the American school system rattled me. My mother dropped me off at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Seattle’s Central District, and said, “nabad gelyo,” “goodbye” to me in Somali. Before I even began settling into the classroom that day, my teacher told me that, in order to be successful, it was important that I only speak English, emphasizing that my Somali language skills would not be helpful.
If only this teacher knew then what we know today: Knowledge of more than one language can boost a child’s creative thinking and problem-solving skills and, when children have a strong understanding of their home language first, it actually helps facilitate learning a second language such as English.
Thankfully, my mother worked hard to ensure my siblings and I kept speaking Somali, but many other immigrant students systematically discouraged from speaking their home language were not so lucky. Even today, families encounter the misleading attitude and popular narrative that speaking another language can confuse children and detract from English learning.
That’s why today, immigrant rights organization OneAmerica, launched a statewide “Speak Your Language” campaign.
More than 180 languages are spoken in South King County alone, and in many parts, more than a quarter of the population speaks a language other than English. Linguistically diverse families are a growing asset to our schools and communities, and we need to continue advancing policies and systems that recognize this, while helping to close the opportunity gap in our schools.
As an education organizer with OneAmerica, I took part in a December community event at South Seattle’s Graham Hill Elementary School, coordinated in partnership with their Parent and Teacher Association and the school. The aim was to celebrate and learn about the many languages spoken within the school, and increase pride in bilingualism and multilingualism among students and their families.
I was able to tell the parents about opportunities students have to earn high school credit for demonstrated proficiency in their home language and show them a video that was actually translated in their home language.
During small group discussions, parents expressed that it is important for schools to honor students’ native language and help students realize that being multilingual can create career opportunities. They made a commitment to speak their home language to their children through storytelling and daily activities.
However, parents also expressed some of the obstacles they encountered in supporting their children. Some explained that they were not fully literate in their home language and were not able to read to their children at home. Somali parents asked for more support in the form of Somali-English tutoring and after-school programs, and parents from all of the language groups asked for additional support in accessing books in their home language.
Not only was the dialogue at Graham Hill Elementary a breakthrough for many families who have received years of negative messaging about nurturing home languages, but a testament to the need to learn more about how to best support multilingualism in the school day.
Important progress has been made since my first day at Thurgood Marshall Elementary with more schools and districts increasingly embracing bi-and -multilingualism. Highline School District is leading the way with the goal for their class of 2026 to graduate fully bilingual and biliterate. High school students can now earn world language credits through competency testing in their home language, and a Seal of Biliteracy on their high school diplomas. Last year, legislation passed to award grants to schools for dual-language education.
Advocacy efforts like the “Speak Your Language” campaign give me hope that we can change the narrative about language learning so that one day, no child will experience shame for speaking their home language, and instead, feel great pride in their multilingualism.
But without strong, positive messages from schools and surrounding communities, immigrant children often abandon their home language, reject their home culture, lose their ability to communicate with their families and fail to benefit from the recognized development benefits of bilingualism.
Schools, educators, service providers and community leaders play a key role in keeping the progress going on home language learning, so that immigrant students don’t get left behind.
Here are a few actions one can take through our “Speak Your Language” campaign:
- Host a community event to talk about home language.
- Talk with students about the value of their bilingual skills.
- Hold a ceremony for students who have earned a Seal of Biliteracy.
- Spread the word about the World Language Credit Program.
- Contact your legislators, and ask them to advance dual language policy.