What I've Learned: Bilingualism is a Gift and a Treasure

Educators may spend their careers preparing lessons, but often the most memorable are those they learn themselves.  With that in mind, NEA Today asked school staff –  everyone from classroom teachers and bus drivers to guidance counselors and school nurses – to share the everyday lessons they’ve picked up along the way in a series called “What I’ve Learned.”

What I’ve Learned: Therese Nugent, Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist at Jefferson Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif.

I’ve learned that everybody has a story to tell. It is inspiring and uplifting to help someone find the words to express themselves, and wonderful to take the time to listen and to understand.

Therese Nugent with her students

‘I don’t go to concerts because I’m afraid they’ll deport me. I came across the border hidden under the back seat in a big car,’ one of my students told me. A parent confessed: ‘His father hasn’t bonded with him. He was in Iraq when he was born, and came home with PTSD. I tell the kids to just leave him alone when he is agitated.’

I’ve also learned that the most crucial speech-language skills are in the area of pragmatics—social language is top dog and should be the priority for language development. While we always address vocabulary development and grammar, nonverbal communication and social judgment for kids matter much more. Kids who know how to approach peers and look at them, figure out a reasonable topic and take their turn in conversation—no matter the grammar—are able to communicate with and make friends. They are happier.

I have learned that all educators are amazing language teachers. They read to their students and sing songs. They talk all day together. They give projects that enrich vocabulary. Think of the many new words a first grader learns while weighing an actual fish on a balance, noting its fin types and figuring out how fast it will swim.

I’ve learned that bilingualism is a gift and a treasure. Students who speak two languages have cognitive flexibility and advantages in vocabulary. Communication is enriched. Bilingual teachers can also enlist the help of resourceful and intelligent Spanish-speaking parents to further bilingual communication.

I’ve learned that sometimes the simplest message can make a world of difference, like when a student with Asperger’s Syndrome said thank you: ‘I appreciate you Ms. Nugent. You teach me to be social and peaceful.’

It’s my job to help students be peaceful. When they’re peaceful they can tell their stories.