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English Is (Not) My Second Language

I have never felt that my ethnic background was a hindrance to my education. Speaking languages other than English should be seen as an asset in this country, not a threat, an insult, a hindrance or something to be made shameful. It should be celebrated.
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A young Asian girl studies hard her English writing skills (look at what she's writing down).
A young Asian girl studies hard her English writing skills (look at what she's writing down).

I'm a first generation Latin American, born in California to immigrant parents, the middle child of three siblings. My older brother, like my parents, was born outside the US, but my younger sister and I were both born in this country. I grew up speaking Spanish first, but quickly and fluently learned English.

While Spanish is my first language, English has long since been my dominant language, since all my education and the vast majority of my cultural exposure has been in English. By the time my sister was born, her two siblings and all our cousins were already fully bilingual, and she grew up speaking both languages, with her Spanish being much more limited than mine or our brother's.

Due to my birth date being so late in the year, I was always one of the youngest in my class, if not the youngest. I was also always part of the "gifted and talented" group, starting in early elementary school, a fact I take much pride in.

At the age of 15, when I was a sophomore in high school (and my sister in elementary school), my parents moved from California to Texas. As my mom and I went to enroll my sister and me in school, I served as my mom's translator, since, to this day, she still does not speak English. I'm not sure if it was because of my mom's obvious lack of English, but despite my own English fluency and academic record, we were treated as though my family had just immigrated to this country.

Not only did I have to take an excruciatingly easy ESL test, but I also had to translate to my mother that both my sister and I had to take an ESL test. I did not understand why we had to take the ESL test and neither did my mother. I cannot recall which one of us was angrier. If I remember correctly (and to be honest, I may not; I was livid that day at being forced to take the ESL test at all), all bilingual students had to be tested for ESL solely due to speaking another language in their homes, despite their actual English fluency/ability.

To add insult to injury, due to my age, the district was considering demoting me from 10th grade to 9th, despite being in all honors/AP classes, having been part of the IB program at my previous high school, and being in higher level mathematics (I was already taking pre-calculus and trigonometry). I should mention, my younger sister, despite having received ALL her education in English since kindergarten, was placed in ESL classes for about a year.

Luckily, I did not have to take ESL classes and I was not demoted a grade, but to think that that had even been considered solely on my being bilingual is offensive, and a huge disservice to all the bilingual children growing up in the U.S.

My sister, born in this country, while fluent in English, does not hold the same skill level in Spanish, and yet was forced to participate in ESL classes due to a misguided district policy. The district wanted to do the same for me, but my mom and I fought the district in that respect, my voice being the one doing the arguing in English.

To be completely honest, I don't know if that school district continues to hold the same policy. In fact, I have never read that school district's policy regarding ESL education to new students. The incident may have been an exception to the rule. However, it did occur, and while the passage of time has made the details hazy, the facts remain that due to no other reason but my family's home language being Spanish, the district deemed it necessary to test mine and my sister's English language ability.

Overall, I have never felt that my ethnic background was a hindrance to my education. Needless to say, I was surprised (and angered) that my background was seen as a negative indicator to my educational ability and achievement. I went on to graduate in the top 10 percent of my high school class and attend university thanks to a then newly-created scholarship program for students of low-income backgrounds. In fact, I was the first graduate of the scholarship program and graduated from the University of North Texas at the age of 19 (technically I turned 20 a mere three weeks before my college graduation).

My parents were always educationally-minded and encouraged any and all academic endeavors. However, the above-mentioned high school encounter did make me feel that bureaucracy initially meant to help students of non-English speaking backgrounds could easily be misconstrued and negatively affect those very same students. Speaking languages other than English should be seen as an asset in this country, not a threat, an insult, a hindrance or something to be made shameful. It should be celebrated.

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