Nieto, Sonia

Article

Speech

Please note: Speeches appear in the language in which they were delivered.

President Frémont, Dean Barwell, members of the Board of Governors, members of the Senate, professors, family, friends, and especially, proud graduates of the University of Ottawa – congratulations to you all! Bonsoir et félicitations à tous les diplômés, à leurs familles et leurs amis, et à leurs professeurs. Forgive my French, but last time I spoke the language was when I studied it in high school. My daughter Alicia, an ESL teacher and fluent speaker of Spanish, English, and French, helped me with this. I am thrilled to be here to wish you good luck and bid you farewell. I am also very grateful to accept this honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa. Thank you for this tremendous honour.

As a speaker of Spanish, my first language, and English, the language I learned when I started school, I know too well both the rewards and challenges of bilingualism in the United States, a nation that, although extraordinarily multilingual, at the same time has little regard for those who speak languages other than English. Of course, if one is a native English speaker and becomes fluent in another language, that is often seen as quite a remarkable feat, one to be applauded, but if one speaks a language other than English as a home language, that is another matter entirely. Joshua Fishman, the late renowned scholar of bilingual education, captured this disdain for native speakers of languages other than English in the U.S. quite succinctly when he wrote, “Many Americans have long been of the opinion that bilingualism is ‘a good thing’ if it was acquired via travel (preferably to Paris) or via formal education (preferably at Harvard) but that it is a ‘bad thing’ if it was acquired from one’s immigrant parents or grandparents.

My parents, Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States, spoke only Spanish to my sister, my brother, and me. Though we were born in the U.S., Spanish was our home language, but in school I quickly picked up the message that it was a handicap, redundant in a nation that defines bilingualism and cultures other than the dominant one as problems, even deficits. It took me many years to unlearn the negative messages I had picked up about being Puerto Rican and speaking Spanish. I was a young adult when I finally realized the enormous treasure of bilingualism and multiculturalism.

Many years ago, Charlemagne is reported to have said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” As bilinguals, we see the world more fully; we can communicate with people who are different from us and learn a great deal from them; we get to express our most profound sentiments – love, tenderness, grief, melancholy, anger, desire, hope – in ways that are most meaningful to us. When I see an infant, my Spanish instinctively comes out; when I stub my toe, also, though probably with words I wouldn’t use in public! Fifty years ago, I fell in love with my husband in Spanish, and that is still the language of love for me.

We bilinguals are immensely fortunate. The linguist Frank Smith captured this sentiment beautifully when he wrote, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” I am profoundly grateful to my parents for keeping that Spanish door open for me because, despite our teachers’ admonitions to “Speak only English at home!” they never paid attention to this flawed advice. In When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins’s humorous and touching story of what it meant for her to learn French so she could communicate with the man she fell in love with in his own language, she writes, “Language, as much as land, is a place. To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.” I guess, without having the words for it at the time, this is how I felt as a child and young adult. I was homeless without my first language, the language that meant hearth, love, family, and nurturing.

To be honest, I have to admit that I feel sorry for people who haven’t learned to communicate in at least one other language. My favorite bumper sticker, one that I had on my office door at the University of Massachusetts for many years, said, “Monolingualism is a curable disease.” To me, you’re all so special because not only are you bilingual, but you’re also educators. Together, these identities are powerful forces for promoting understanding, respect, solidarity, and healing. I believe that education is not only a profession and vocation; it is also an odyssey, a gift for both students and teachers. As future and practicing educators who are also bilingual, my message to you today is this: you have a special responsibility to recognize, defend, and extend the gifts of bilingualism, multilingualism, and multiculturalism, not only in your homes and among your family members and friends, but also with your students and even throughout your nation and the world.

Those of us who are bilingual or multilingual know that languages are not a threat, but instead, a gift; the real threats are provincialism and small-mindedness. So, go and do your part. Speak English! Parlez français! Habla español! Fala portugues! And any other language you speak or learn.

As you begin or continue your professional journey, first, take a cue from my mother who stubbornly refused to speak to us in English: rather than ask the parents of your students who speak languages other than the majority languages, to abandon those languages, encourage them to keep speaking them; to keep telling their stories in those languages; to continue to write their letters, their texts, their emails, and even their shopping lists in those languages; and to keep reading books in those languages. Not only will their children benefit, but more importantly, their relationships will remain vital and flourish because they will be able to communicate in the language that is most significant in their lives.

Second, make your classrooms a haven for honouring multilingualism. Make sure to create curriculum that celebrates the diverse languages and cultures of your students, your nation, and the world; use books from many different points of view; display posters and sayings that honour many kinds of people. Your job as educators is not to fill your students’ heads but to open their hearts and minds. Speaking different languages and affirming diversity of all kinds are important ways to open your students’ minds, and opening minds is always a good thing.

Just imagine if everyone recognized what has been called “the bilingual advantage”. Might we become less fearful of difference? Might we have more inter-group friendships and other relationships? Might we learn to respect others who are different from us? Dare I believe that we might have fewer disagreements, even fewer wars? Without being a Pollyanna, I believe that bilingualism and multilingualism provide us with powerful tools to negotiate the world and to make it better. I’m excited about the path you’ve chosen as bilingual and multilingual educators. Good luck to you! Bonne chance and make a difference in your students’ lives and in the world!

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