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Students celebrate the beauty of multiple languages

Embracing mother language helps bolster identity, connect to culture

Kenowa Hills – Alpine Elementary paraprofessional Brenda Boynton is passionate about multilingualism, learning and speaking more than one language. 

Boynton’s multifaceted identity drives her to share her passion with her students, especially English-language learners. 

“I’ve lived in the United States for four years and speak both English and Spanish,” explained Boynton, an immigrant from Mexico. “I also encourage speaking both languages in my home.” 

Inspired by her own cultural heritage, Boynton brought an idea for celebrating International Mother Language Day to Principal Jason Snyder to promote cultural diversity and multilingualism at Alpine. 

“My hope was to inspire kids to learn a new language and to encourage students who spoke multiple languages to feel comfortable speaking them in school,” Boynton said. “When you learn to speak another language, you open a new window to a new world.”

Fifth-grade students Aylin Vazquez and Alondra Vazquez enjoyed spending a day at school celebrating everyone’s different backgrounds and where their respective families came from. 

“When I was in kindergarten I didn’t know how to speak English, only Spanish,” Aylin said. “Now I feel good being able to speak both.”

During the day’s festivities, Aylin blended her passion for art with her culture to create her paper hand for the mural displayed on a bulletin board.  

“The day made families really happy and gave us the chance to speak Spanish outside of our homes,” Aylin said. 

Alondra shared she picked up some English from her friends and she enjoys teaching them about her mother language, Spanish, which she often speaks at home.

“My parents told me they didn’t have this kind of opportunity in schools in Mexico, so they were happy for me that I did,” she said. 

Supporting Culture Diversity

The United Nations recognizes International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21 and believes education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as the foundation for their learning.

Both Boynton and Snyder agreed on the importance of helping students from all backgrounds feel comfortable being their authentic selves in school. 

“Brenda offered up the idea and a great perspective because it’s personal to her life,” Snyder explained. “Celebrating this day generated great conversations about backgrounds and honored personal experiences of our students and staff.” 

On International Mother Language Day 2017, Smithsonian Magazine identified three main effects of language death: loss of unique expressions of humanity, loss of history and culture, and loss of knowledge of environmental and medical resources.

“Sometimes kids don’t want to say they speak another language or that their parents speak another language, so they move on from their mother language to learn English and slowly lose their identity and culture,” Boynton explained.

Kenowa Hills’ Director of Diversity, Equity, and Mental Health Services Brooke Davis said creating inclusive environments is one of the district’s priorities. 

“We want all of our families to feel comfortable,” Davis said. “Having a language barrier is tough, and at times parents feel like they don’t fit in, can’t communicate their needs, and feel intimidated by the educational process.” 

According to Snyder, the majority of EL students at Alpine are Spanish-speaking. 

“We have had students who have spoken Chaldean, Chinese, Korean, Indian dialects Hindi and Telugu, and African dialects Malayalam and Kirundi,” Snyder said.

English Language Learner Percentages (Fall Reporting)

ELELELELELEL
2014-152015-162016-172017-182018-192019-20
Alpine24%26%23%17%16%14%
Source: Michigan Student Data System


Davis hopes organizing more celebrations like International Mother Language Day will help to start breaking down those barriers for families.

“We want to be intentional about partnering with the community to learn and develop ways to include parents,” Davis said. “Part of developing an inclusive environment is teaching ourselves about the population we serve and exposing our students to the diversity and richness within our buildings.”

‘We Put the Seed in Their Souls’  

Boynton considers herself the perfect example of how honoring language and culture helps strengthen identity. 

“I am bilingual and an immigrant from Mexico, so I’ve struggled with learning a new language and my own identity,” Boynton said. “This day (at Alpine) was very important to me and we celebrated so many students with different languages.”  

Boynton also believes sharing common experiences and learning about other cultures is beautiful. 

“We got to watch the students trace their hands on paper, cut them out and write down their favorite word in their mother languages,” Boynton said. “I think we put the seed in their souls to grow their connection to their language and cultures.” 

In future years, Boynton hopes to continue celebrating this special day at Alpine Elementary.

“The beauty of the United States is the diversity of food, culture and languages,” Boynton said. “If we are capable of embracing those differences, we become more aware and empathetic of each other.”

First graders (from left) Mikel Garcia, Aadhityaa Karthikeyan and Landon Gritter wrote their favorite word in their mother language on a cut-out handprint (courtesy photo)
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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