January 10, 2024

The Emergent Bilingual Experience

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Cindy Lopez:
Welcome. My name is Cindy Lopez, the host of this CHC podcast, Voices of Compassion. We hope you find a little courage, feel connected and experience compassion every time you listen. In today’s episode, we celebrate the power of bilingualism as a strength rather than a challenge. Join us in a conversation with doctoral psychology intern at CHC, Chelsea Yanuaria. In addition to being a mental health professional, Chelsea is bilingual herself. She provides a unique lens on the journey of emergent bilingual individuals, highlighting the unique advantages and strengths that come with navigating multiple languages and cultures. By embracing and honoring linguistic diversity, we can foster a more inclusive and interconnected community. Listen to this episode today to hear more about how multiple languages can be a formidable asset in today’s world.

Chelsea, we’re so glad you could join us today. I’m wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself and why this topic is so important to you.

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
Thank you, Cindy. So, I am a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Loyola University Chicago, and I’m studying under the mentorship of Dr. Elizabeth Vera. And I’m also currently completing my clinical training at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital and Children’s Health Council and really the focus of my work in terms of my teaching and my research and my clinical work is on families and how the systems within which they exist really impact them. And so, as someone who works with diverse children and families and a large number of immigrant families, challenges related to multiculturalism and bilingualism, specifically in the school setting often come up. And much of the research that I’ve completed with Dr. Vera and other colleagues really focuses specifically on the educational experiences of emergent bilingual students.

Cindy Lopez:
So let’s talk about that. How would you define emergent bilingual?

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
Emergent bilinguals are students who know or are learning more than one language. And they were previously called ESL, or English as a Second Language students, ELL, or English Language Learners or LEPs, Limited English Proficient students, and we’re really trying to move away from these terms because they convey a deficit mindset in terms of what it means when your first language is not English, and they really emphasize English fluency as the end goal. So, we are trying to move towards using the emergent bilingual term because it really communicates that bilingualism or multilingualism is a strength and encourages the continued use of students home languages. Beyond that, it also communicates that their home culture is valuable. So, in addition to their identities as language learners, emergent bilinguals often possess other social identities that impact their experiences in school and really in the broader society in general. So, they’re often of immigrant origin. They may also be ethnic racial minorities. And it’s not uncommon for these students to be socialized at school in a way that privileges dominant culture at the expense of their own and so these educational practices are termed subtractive practices because they really serve as a barrier for youth positive ethnic identity development.

Cindy Lopez:
Interesting, because I’ve been in education for a long time, almost 40 years. And so I definitely have used all those terms, ESL, ELL, LEP, and others have, and you know, we really haven’t thought about it. So it’s interesting now to hear from you about the emergent bilingual approach and that terminology and really support the strength-based approach. We try to do that at CHC too. We try to really look at the whole child and approach from a strength-based perspective. Thinking about the whole ESL, ELL, LEP and now using the term emergent bilingual, why do you think that terminology is so important?

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
Thank you for that Cindy because, you know, what you just illustrated is that while we can be so well meaning, language is so powerful in shaping culture and how we are conceptualizing students whose first language is not English. And so I think broadly one of the reasons why terminology is so important because it’s really impacting our own psychology and how we’re conceptualizing these students and how we relate to them. So, you know, when we’re thinking about schools, they really serve as a microcosm of the broader society. And it’s a broader society that tends to treat differences as deficits. And so, you know, it’s not uncommon for educators then to hold deficit views of immigrant and ethnic minority families, consciously or unconsciously, and when this happens, they can treat languages and cultures of emergent bilinguals as problems that need to be fixed.

Cindy Lopez:
Right. And it’s interesting because I’ve been looking at the data and I know that by 2025, emergent bilinguals will comprise about 25 percent of our public school system in the US. And about 70 percent of that 25 percent will be Spanish speakers, so predominantly Spanish, and that’s certainly important for educators to know and understand. In light of all that, how can educators effectively support these emergent bilingual students?

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
For teachers that are not already operating from a strengths based perspective, I think it really requires a shift in mindset and viewing bilingualism and multilingualism and multiculturalism really as a strength. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for emergent bilingual students to experience microaggressions from teachers and counselors. And unfortunately, when educators engage in microaggressive behavior, they’re modeling for other students that this behavior is acceptable. So you can imagine how all these factors taken together really shape the context and the experiences emergent bilinguals often encounter. So really like for teachers and for counselors to really shift their mindset is the starting point.

We also know from research that students often want educators to be curious about their backgrounds and have some understanding of their lives outside of the classroom. So expressing some curiosity and getting to know about their cultures and where they’re coming from, I think is important. And then, you know, another thing that’s really coming to mind is that parents are often an untapped resource here. So it’s not uncommon for emergent bilingual students to look at teachers and not see their languages and cultures represented. So creating opportunities for parent involvement allows students to have access to other adults who may have a better understanding of their culture and language, while also allowing parents and teachers to build a positive working relationship. So, through cultivating a relationship with parents, teachers gain better insight into the lives and cultures of their students, and parents are also able to experience themselves as having something very important to offer because they do. It’s not uncommon for parents to also internalize this deficit mindset because it’s getting reinforced across contexts. So again, shifting the mindset is the starting point because really what we’re talking about is changing culture.

It’s so important for teachers, for educators to build that trusting relationship with their students, that’s foundational to really students being able to learn, that relationship with their teacher is primary to their learning. And so you noted this, like students love it when you’re curious about who they are and, you know, what they do and what’s home like, and when teachers take an interest in them. So I think for all of us, educators it’s really important for us to just remember that again. So as I mentioned, the strength based approach is really important. And it’s part of our mindset here at CHC.

So Chelsea, why do you think it’s so important for educators to take a strength-based approach with their students?

There’s a number of reasons why this is so important, but something that is incredibly salient for me right now, I just finished a research project with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Vera at Loyola, and we were looking at the educational experiences and the college success of emergent bilingual students, and so one of the things that we know is that educators really need to be operating from this strengths based approach because it really influences students pursuit of higher education. Almost half of all emergent bilinguals do not attend college, and those that do are overrepresented in community colleges. And linguistic barriers are often assumed to be behind these achievement disparities, but really what research demonstrates is that it’s more due to the lack of encouragement that these students receive from educators, along with a lack of access to college preparatory classes.

So, in an educational system where it’s not uncommon for English proficiency to be equated with intelligence, you can imagine how that would shape the educational culture and how that might shape the way educators are interacting with students. And so, you know, some of the things that we found from this study is that it wasn’t uncommon for these students to be discouraged from pursuing AP classes because again we’re operating from that mentality that English proficiency is equated with intelligence, which we know is not true. But if we are operating from that mentality, you know, they’re not going to have access to courses that may better prepare them for colleges and entering into the university.

Beyond that, it was also not uncommon for the students that participated in our study to be actively discouraged from pursuing higher education. And so because of this, they often op themselves out. They might not even try to pursue higher ed. And for those that do there was something that we really called the spite factor. There was this drive to prove others wrong, to show, you know, I am smart and I can do this. I can be successful despite you and, you know, along with that, there was usually someone that was encouraging them. So, even if they were in a culture that was, for the most part discouraging, there was usually a teacher or maybe there was a counselor or a parent who was particularly invested in their educational journey and their access to college and a university level education.

So, you know, despite the barriers, these students do end up attending college, even though for the most part, the majority do not. And one of the things that I will say is really important as I’m thinking about emergent bilinguals entering into college is something that really stood out from the research is that a lot of these students felt that they did not have an adequate support system when they did enter the university. This sense of belonging is incredibly important to mental health and our academic performance, and so support systems are really lacking at the college and university level. There was a participant that said something that just stood out to me. They were really highlighting that being an emergent bilingual is not a disability. It’s not a disorder, but it is a disadvantage. And so, they don’t receive the same kinds of accommodations that other students who maybe have, you know, a learning disability might get. So you can imagine if you’re translating your coursework, how much longer that might take as opposed to if you spoke English as your first language.

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Cindy Lopez:
We’ve talked about this in past episodes, but so important for students to have a trusted ally, adult, a teacher, is often a school counselor, is often one of those people. And so, you’ve just underscored how much more important it is for these emergent bilingual students to have those kinds of relationships and again, just important point that I want to really bring home is that being bilingual or multilingual is an asset. I mean, I wish I spoke multiple languages, it’s an asset. So how do we build upon that asset, as educators and help students and their families in that way.

When you’re talking about this being an asset, this, overlaps with another area of research, called ethnic racial socialization.

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
And it is essentially like how parents are communicating to their kids about ethnicity and race. But specifically like how they are cultivating a sense of pride in their cultural identity. And what we know from the research is that cultivation of pride is essential. It serves as like a protective factor and a buffer in the face of discrimination, and racism, and stereotypes, and prejudice, and, you know, the things that they will inevitably encounter, you know, as they continue to grow up and enter society, and so, learning how to cope with that, and that cultivation of pride, part of that cultivation of pride is also learning your language.

Cindy Lopez:
It’s so important for all of us to be able to identify with our roots and our heritage. It grounds us, and as you said, even as the research shows, it provides some protective factors and even more so for these students who are emergent bilinguals. I know, Chelsea, that you have your own story as, your family came from the Philippines, just wondering if you might be able to share a little bit of your experience with us?

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
I am a second generation immigrant, but I am also multiracial. I’m filipina, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m Dutch, and I’m Jewish, and so I come from a very multicultural family. I think that You know, my parents did the very best that they can. They wanted us to have access to opportunities that they did not, have access to, both myself and my younger brother. and in doing so, you know, to really, to survive in dominant culture, you really need to know dominant culture. And so in that way, I think that, socialization into that dominant culture was prioritized. And so, I’m in a phase in my life where I feel like I am, really reclaiming, my cultural background, as someone who is multicultural and multiracial. My family speaks multiple languages and I speak English. You know, English was prioritized growing up, because my parents wanted me to, you know, have access to as much as I could, and I think that, you know, it’s not uncommon for parents to believe that that protects their child.

And so, when I went to college, I went to a predominantly white institution, and I think that having that kind of cultural knowledge and even the languages of my family, I think it would have afforded me a better opportunity to connect with peers that had my shared heritage culture and so, you know, that served as a barrier in many ways, and at the same time for those that are listening to this that maybe had a similar experience, I don’t want that to discourage anyone because I joined those groups on campus. I had a college roommate who was also Filipina and was just super supportive of me. And we did have that shared identity regardless of how much I had been socialized into my own culture. So, you know, you’ll find your support systems.

Cindy Lopez:
So, Chelsea, you just mentioned like reclaiming your kind of identity and your heritage, like what do you mean by that? Can you talk about some of the things that you are doing or experiencing that helps you to reclaim that?

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
My dissertation focuses on ethnic racial socialization in Filipino American families. And so, you know, I’m really utilizing my dissertation as an opportunity to really highlight Filipino American experiences.

Cindy Lopez:
Mm hmm. And it’s great that you are able to so meaningfully integrate that into your work and your studies and really make that a meaningful part of your practice. And I hope that encourages all of us to figure out ways to really integrate authentically who we are into what we do. And as you were talking as a Filipina, as that multiracial kind of background, it’s so important for our students who are in similar positions to be able to relate to their heritage and their roots and somehow create that bridge between who they are, who their family is and you figured out how to integrate all that.

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
When we’re looking at like the acculturation research, for example, what we really see is that establishing a bicultural or multicultural identity where it is integrated really yields the best outcomes. And so, basically what it is communicating is that you don’t want to be so separate from your heritage culture, you also don’t want to be so isolated from your cultural identity, so isolated from the dominant culture.

Cindy Lopez:
Yes, right.

I think, for each person that probably looks a little different. So Chelsea, I just want to thank you so much for joining us today and sharing a topic that’s so meaningful and important to you and important to us. I’m wondering if there are any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our listeners?

Chelsea Yanuaria, MA:
As we’ve talked about like teachers and counselors really they play a powerful role that they oftentimes don’t realize, and so I think because of that, you know, really cultural humility training, continuing education on preventing microaggressions and discrimination related to emergent bilingual status is important. I also think parent involvement in the schools is an untapped resource and so really figuring out a way to allow parents to experience a sense of belonging, in the schools in which their students attend, I think is really important. And also for parents specifically cultivating in your kids like a sense of cultural pride is an important protective factor, whether that be through allowing your kids to understand their history, the foods of your culture and traditions, and of course the language. These are things that we know is really important for ethnic racial identity development and a positive one because they really serve as a protective factor in the face of racism and discrimination.

And for students, I think connection to peers is powerful, so as much as you’re able to connect with others who share your experiences, your culture, your language, you know, as you said, Cindy, finding your allies that’s also very important because this journey is not easy, and we’re social beings, we were not meant to do anything completely alone. And so finding those support systems is essential. And hopefully educational spaces will invest in allowing students to find those support systems.

Cindy Lopez:
For our listeners, we actually do have a past podcast on cultural humility that you can look up and we can include that in the show notes too. And also we have many bilingual clinicians at CHC. So if you’re looking for some support for your child and you want to have a bilingual clinician, please reach out. You can find out more at chcoonline.org, or check in with our care team at careteam@chconline.org.

Dr. Joan Baran: Hello everyone. This is Dr. Joan Baran dropping in to say I’m so excited to be our guest host next time for our first ever podcast episode in Spanish. It’s called Entendiendo a la salud mental or Understanding Mental Health in English, and you can get it right here on Voices of Compassion. Again, this episode will be in Spanish. There are two amazing bilingual therapists who are joining me: Drs. Melina Foden and Dr. Emily Hsu.

Please share Voices of Compassion podcast with your Spanish speaking friends so they too can find a little courage, feel connected, and experience a little compassion every time they listen. We have 15 clinicians here at CHC who speak Spanish. We provide clinical services in these languages: Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, Hindi, ASL, Urdu, Hebrew, Vietnamese, and Italian.

Hola, soy Dra. Baran. Estoy emocionada porque hoy tenemos el primer episodio de podcast en español. Se llama Entendiendo la Salud Mental y puede escuchar aquí mismo en Voices of Compassion.

Recuerde… este episodio sera en Espanol! Conmigo hay dos terapeutas bilingues y incredibles, Dra. Melina Foden y Dra. Emily Hsu.

Por favor comparte el podcast, Voices of Compassion con sus amigos para que ellos tambien puedan encontrar un poco de coraje, se sieten conectados y se sieten un poco de compasion cada vez que Voices of Compassion amigos y se sienten un poco de compasión cada vez que escuchan.

Cindy Lopez:
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