Sonia NietoSonia Nieto is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she taught for 25 years. Before that, she was a junior high and elementary school teacher. She has written widely on issues of multicultural education and on the education of students of diverse backgrounds, and she has written numerous books, journal articles, and book chapters on these topics.

Sometimes as soon as I step foot in a school, I can tell of its commitment, or lack of commitment, to affirming the diversity of their students. Some things are obvious, of course: posters, bulletin boards, the nature of the books in the library, the diversity of the staff, and the language or languages displayed in the school – not only whether the home language or languages of your students are visible, but also the tone of signs in the building such as “Visitors must go to Principal’s Office,” versus “Welcome to our school! Please stop by the Principal’s Office to let us know you’re here.” Other things are less obvious: whether there is a consistent and committed outreach to all families; the curriculum and how it actually unfolds in the classroom; and whether or not students’ identities are truly accepted and honored.

It is one thing to say that all students are affirmed in a school but quite another to show this affirmation in concrete ways. Take language, for example: although many children in U. S. schools are native speakers of languages other than English – and the number is growing larger each day – they are frequently advised, either overtly or in subtle ways, that their language is not acceptable in the school setting. In my case, it happened almost 6 decades ago when my sister and I started school in our mostly immigrant school in Brooklyn, New York. My mother was asked by our well-meaning teachers to “speak only English at home, Mrs. Cortés!”, as if she could magically wipe out her own socialization and education, and her natural inclination to speak to her children in the language in which she had been brought up, nurtured, and loved. Naturally, she nodded her head in agreement (after all, one had to respect teachers) but then, luckily for my sister and me, she paid no attention whatsoever to our well-meaning teachers. My mother and father went right on speaking Spanish to us at home. I am certain that neither of us would be where we are today – both highly educated women, my sister a poet and short story writer, and me, a teacher educator and writer – had it not been for our parents’ insistence that Spanish be spoken at home.

Why tell you this story? For me, it epitomizes a small but significant action that principals and teachers can take to affirm students’ identities. Even if it is well-meaning, a teacher’s advice to bar students’ home languages from the school setting is in the end both self-defeating for schools and alienating for students. The usual result is that students feel unwelcome and unsupported in the school setting, and they may conclude that school is no place for them. Even if they do well in school, as my sister and I did, children may learn to feel ashamed of their identities and their families, neither of which is very healthy for them or for our society.

No matter how one feels about bilingual education – some see it as a scourge while others see it as redemption– the truth is that research is clear that when students speak a language other than English, and when that language is firmly established and developed, it is an asset to learning English (for a review of this literature, see Chapter 7 in Nieto & Bode, 2008, below). Even more important, research has also found that students who are bilingual (rather than those who are fluent in neither language, or those who begin as fluent speakers of one language and become fluent speakers of English while losing their native language) have a much better track record in terms of academic achievement, high school graduation, and even mental health (see Portes & Rumbaut, 2006).

Bilingual education is not the issue here. I wish it were available in more schools, but it is not. In the meantime, what can principals and teachers do to affirm their students’ languages? I offer one simple piece of advice: Even if they themselves do not speak the language of their students, teachers and principals can demonstrate their support for students’ languages by saying to parents, “Please, Mrs. Chung, keep speaking Chinese at home,” or “Mr. Rosario, read to Ricardito in Spanish at home.” Rather than making children ashamed of the tremendous resource they have – a resource that many native English speakers try in vain to attain – accepting and affirming students’ home languages is a concrete way for teachers to put into practice a respect for diversity.

Reminding parents that they have a rich literacy legacy to pass on to their children and that we all benefit both individually and as a society by our multilingual and multicultural reality is, it seems to me, a win-win situation.


Nieto, S. & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Portes, A. & Rumbaut, R. G. (2006). Immigrant America: A portrait, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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8 Responses to “Honoring Children’s Languages: One Simple Suggestion by Sonia Nieto”

  1. Sarah Johnson on 4/9/12 1:07 PM US/Eastern

    Very well said, thank you.

  2. Miriam Guttman on 4/10/12 9:57 AM US/Eastern

    This concept is so important for many reasons. Another area that was alluded to in Sonia’s response is that when children lose their native language, they often cannot communicate well with their parents and this becomes difficult for all involved. Unfortunately, the people who lose the most are the children.

  3. Tammy King, WIDA blogger on 4/11/12 11:32 AM US/Eastern

    I agree with Sarah and Miriam. Excellent piece – it is so important to provide parents with a clear and consistent message that fluency in their native language is a precious gift that they can give their children. Here are some of my favorite resources for sharing with parents of ELLs

  4. Kathy Cheek and ESL class on 4/12/12 9:00 AM US/Eastern

    Some students agree with Mrs. Nieto. We were born into the Spanish language and we love it and are comfortable speaking Spanish. However, there are some people that go to court and can’t speak English and need help with an interpreter. Also, you can make new friends speaking both languages in life. You have a better chance making more money and getting a better job speaking two languages.

  5. Sonia Nieto on 4/12/12 8:14 PM US/Eastern

    Thanks for the responses to my piece. I am heartened that people agree on the importance of maintaining one’s native language. I do have some concern that Kathy and members of the ESL class seem to have concluded that I don’t want people to become bilingual. Nothing could be further from the truth! After all, in what language did I write my blog? (I could also have written it in Spanish, so I feel very privileged to be bilingual). My husband and I raised our own two daughters with both languages, and they are now bilingual. One is a medical assistant who uses her Spanish every day and the other is a teacher of French and Spanish (yes, she became trilingual thanks to speaking Spanish because once you know one language in the Romance languages, the others are not hard to learn). Maintaining one’s native language does not preclude becoming bilingual; as a matter of fact, it encourages it. Everyone knows that speaking English in our country is an absolute essential. It’s a shame, though, that some people believe they need to drop their native language in order to speak English.

  6. Andrea Rodriguez D. Ed. on 4/13/12 6:13 PM US/Eastern

    Respecting the language of a family begins with respecting that bilingualism or multilingualism is a strength on which children can build to increase their language skills in English. It requires that school people understand that the language of the family can improve the development of English language skills and that parents, English speaking or not, have a lot to offer. I engage constantly with my colleges in NYCDOE about not defining a second language as a learning deficit and, sorry to say it has not changed much in my thirty years of practice asa school psychologist, but I will continue to advocate that all cultural aspects of a child be respected in teaching and learning.

  7. Laura Mitchell on 12/22/12 2:42 PM US/Eastern

    I appreciate Sonia Nieto’s voice as she continues to share such wonderful thoughts. School is a very important place to all of us. When the people in the school value ones culture, then true learning can begin. Having to give up a language, tradition, or value just because of the school policy or people, devalues all of us. I am renewed to hear such wonderful thoughts shared here and reminded how important our work is.

  8. Sandra Gonzalez on 3/28/14 7:19 AM US/Eastern

    I am elated to read such professional and thoughtful understandings about being bilingual. I have read Sonia Nieto’s work and respect her. I often quote Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier’s research about dual language programs and their effectiveness.

    My children and I are triliterate in English, Spanish and French and value navigating all three cultures. Born in the U.S.A. of Cuban immigrants, my parents always valued both languages at home. Today, I am an educator (for the past 20 years) in Washington, DC promoting bilingualism in ANY way I can! Sonia Nieto’s voice, research and advocacy should inspire us to affect real change-in Congress!

    Are you aware that NCLB neither prohibits nor encourages bilingual instruction. It did take out all references to bilingual education, bilingualism, and biliteracy from federal education law. Developing students’ native-language proficiency, an important priority of Title VII, is not among the goals of Title III. When this changes, our American Education System will value bilingualism and then maybe we can compete globally with countries whose students speak and learn in more than one language. Bilingualism is great for students who speak a different language other than English at home AND for students who speak English who should be learning another language!

    What can we do? Encourage the parents of our students to continue to use their native language at home! PLEASE! Become the change you would like to see!

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