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Language & Identity | Language Intersection Insights with Sibela Pinochet

JNCL-NCLIS Insights: Language at the Intersection

About the Episode:

JNCL-NCLIS is proud to introduce the twelfth episode of our Language at the Intersection Insights Interview series. In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Sibela Pinochet, a Spanish Language and Culture Teacher at West Forsyth High School, will help us explore the intersection of Language, Identity, and Culture, and how multilingualism moves her world.

The transcript for the episode can be found below.



Amanda Seewald (00:09): Hello, and welcome to the "JNCL-NCLIS Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series, where we talk with professionals from many fields to hear their perspectives on how multilingualism moves our world. The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Language and International Studies proudly presents this series with generous sponsorship support from Vista Higher Learning.


I'm Amanda Seewald, current president of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Language and International Studies, JNCL-NCLIS. And today we introduce you to Dr. Sibela Pinochet, a Spanish language and culture teacher at West Forsyth High School, who will help us explore the intersection of language, identity, and culture, and how multilingualism moves her world. Sibela Pinochet (01:05): Hello, my name is Dr. Sibela Pinochet, and I am Spanish teacher, secondary school, and my intersection is language and identity as well as language and culture. Amanda Seewald (01:18): Wonderful. Thank you. How do you use multiple languages in your own life, Sibela? Sibela Pinochet (01:24): Multiple languages are perhaps defined as a diverse way of communicating. Therefore it's not just one way of speaking English, for example, but a variety dependent upon the region, as well as Spanish and all the varieties and forms that the students bring into the classroom. So when they come to the classroom, you find students that might be native speakers, heritage speakers, because they grew up speaking the Spanish language, for example, at home. But that doesn't mean it's the same as the language that someone who arrives from a Spanish speaking country may speak. We also have students from many different nations in our school, and I believe we have close to 60 nations represented.


So it is, it's a very wide range of languages. And when we find languages, such as Spanish to communicate with students, we have a beautiful opportunity to penetrate more of what makes that student special. So I think that's how I would frame that. Amanda Seewald (02:37): That's wonderful. Thank you. What parts of your life would not be possible without being multilingual? Sibela Pinochet (02:45): It's a, as an immigrant myself, I came to the US as an exchange student back in the, in the days where the American field service was huge in this country, especially in the Northern states. And so when I came, I was an exchange student representing Chile in New York. And in Chile, I learned English, British-English was my second language, and also some French. Schools in Chile are, it's mandatory in secondary schools to take more than one language. So I was studying English and French, and I came to study for my, to do my senior year and in Central High School in New York.


And it was like being born again. So for me, at that point as a 17 year old, I had to really understand the importance of a language that was going to be the gate to a new life. So I discovered through my exchange program, that as I learned English, I became a product of, I began to assimilate. I began to appreciate and understand the American culture much, much better. And I was fortunate enough to live with an American family because I got then to experience the culture in a home setting, which was incredibly valuable for me. And during that year, many changes occurred psychologically, spiritually, physically. And as a young kid, I realized that there is a path for, not just in the capacity of an exchange student being almost like a diplomat, but it was so important that not only I took in what I could to assimilate the American culture, but I had the opportunity to teach others about Chile in this case, my home country.


And I really, I was shocked to see firsthand how little American students knew about Chile. So when they said to me, like in an interview was "Do you have television in your country? Do you have cities?" That they had no idea. They didn't even know where Chile was. So that was the beginning for me to realize this is, this is so rich and so powerful, so amazing, that I fell in love with that idea to educate. I started teaching really about Chile back then when I was an exchange student in high school. And so that's why I value that so much. I couldn't be me without that experience. That's wonderful. Thank you. Sounds like you had a very important you know, kind of formative experience as an exchange student, which is such an important piece of the work that we do in advocacy with regard to study abroad and international education. As an educator, how have you seen that multilingualism being multilingual has shaped you as an educator? You know, what do you see that is different about you as an educator than maybe another educator that would not be multilingual? Sibela Pinochet (05:56): I think in my case, I'm lucky enough to be a product of two cultures in the sense that it gives me that worldview, that is, it's not uniform. It's just, just one. It's just multiple, because when you, when you come from a different country as a 17 year old, I already have my formative years in Chile, then it was just like being born again and start learning about America. So having that has made me a more sympathetic teacher, a more understanding teacher that I can see students with the different perspective and understand where they coming from and appreciating what they bring to the experience of being a secondary in this case, a second language student. Amanda Seewald (06:44): Yeah. I think that the, what you're sharing there is exactly the key to what, what we need all educators to understand, right. Is how valuable it is to be able to see through a different lens, through a global perspective. So, you know, you mentioned your students, your heritage speakers and the students who come with other languages. Can you tell us a story maybe about a student or some students that you know, that really where their language and their identity kind of became a very important part of an experience that you had with them? Sibela Pinochet (07:12): Yes. So I have many experiences through the years. I think when we reach the point of, of teaching the heritage students and moving through the different activities, I have one particular project that we work on towards the end of the first year of, because I teach Heritage I and Heritage II. So towards the end of the first year of heritage one, I present the students with a project called Las Cajitas, which is like little boxes. And they prepare a presentation. First, they answer about 20 questions related to themselves, their past, their history, their heritage, their families, which helps them understand who they are, where they come from. And at the same time, it's towards the end of the first year, because it helps them develop the value and the appreciation of who they are through studying the history of their home countries or their parents home countries, and studying the cultural value of what they bring.


It's almost like they bring so much to the classroom that is not probably valued as much in other classes as it is in the Spanish classroom. So once they are feeling comfortable, this project is perfect because it helps them analyze and prepare a presentation, this in writing, and then they share, it's almost like show and tell, but they bring a little shoebox with items they select from their lives. It could be a picture. It could be a memento, a family heirloom. It could be, it could be something that they receive as children like a blankie or a toy. They choose the items. Many students choose between five and 10 items. They put in the little shoebox. And the day of the presentation, it's moved me to tears as well as them, because it makes them share what they feel comfortable sharing. And sometimes it's so revealing much more than I ever expected.


And so when I see their tears and their feelings and their ability to communicate and share where they came from, how they grew up, why they chose the item, the people that they lost in their lives, and the meaning of leaving people behind, the stories of crossing the border, the fears of night, the animal sounds, stories that are in vivid detail are told and shared with the class are those moments, those are the moments that reveal how important it is to connect with them at the human level, and to give them the opportunity to present who they are using their words and their chosen objects. So that's been incredible because it allows them to see and connect this topic about who they are, who, what their identity is, where do they place themselves in the world. Linda Egnatz (10:19): No, I was just gonna say that, you know, as a classroom, you know, former classroom teacher, you know, when students reveal themselves, that does get, it's something you never forget. So I can really relate to that. So if we come back to that sort of space of language at the, at the intersection of identity, when we think about how as advocates, we're going to talk to legislators, we're going to talk to maybe people in the business space that don't understand that personal classroom experiences that we've had, how might you sort of sum up why language is a part of identity and how that becomes an important, important place for the students sort of to discover that their, you know, that their language has value? Sibela Pinochet (11:05): So I believe our legislators, they need to understand the importance of allowing the programs of foreign languages, particularly Spanish since it's almost like the second language in this country. To allow these programs to, to get more funding and to retain them and to hire people and train teachers differently than the past, because I think we know now, once the students begin to understand their place in the world, they begin to find meaning for what makes them passionate and the value, and to love themselves for what we value as educators. If we can make them feel that their lives are important, that their contribution to the community is crucial because in order to educate kids that feel good about themselves, especially in today's world, we have a lot of mental health issues. It's all connected, all connected with the identity, how they see themselves, where do they place themselves in the world?


What is the intersection of the Spanish language, the English language, and their community, and their world, and their families. How do we deal with that is empowering these kids with the right opportunities? And the classroom is an opportunity for growth that is, you can't put a number on it. You can't put a measure. It's not about grades, it's about that personal development that happens only when learning is enjoyable, when learning is meaningful. That's the only time you reach that level. And I think that's where we are not meeting the needs because I don't think we train teachers properly. And we don't, our community doesn't value that because they don't understand it. Amanda Seewald (12:55): Yeah. That's wonderful. I just have one more question for you and I, you know, I really just want you to, you know, whatever you think about this, but what do you wish the people knew about the importance of multilingualism in general? Like from a national perspective, what do you wish the people in our nation knew about the importance of multilingualism? Sibela Pinochet (13:13): I think that's the answer to many questions regarding self-esteem. Violence is the answer to uncertainty is the answer to hate discrimination, prejudice, bullying. I think it's is such an important question to answer and understand it from the perspective of an educator, that when you give the students room to grow in a safe environment and you value who they are for what they bring to the classroom, then you're opening the door for growth and growth that is going to benefit themselves and an extension to the community. So the more we do to promote education that is inclusive, language that is inclusive and you foster that from day one from day when they start school. And again, you have so many different factors that we cannot resolve, but if we can put money into educating our children and making, for example, for languages available in the elementary schools, like we used to have it in North Carolina, that's where our legislators, they don't understand the importance of that.


They don't understand if we are in a global society and we are going to compete with students from other countries, we must provide our kids with the tools. We're not doing that. We tend to be very egocentric as a nation, and we think everybody speaks English, therefore we don't need to teach any other languages. And that is terrible because the language is not just the language. It ties up to culture and history and arts and music and everything. So in order to make the whole person, I think in this day and age, we need to provide a second language as an opportunity children should have access to from day one. Kindergarten. It should be taught in the elementary schools. It should be taught in the middle schools, and it should be a great component where Language I is as important as Language II. And that's what the Europeans have done forever. So they're way ahead of us. And they tend to perform much better than we do. They tend to have less problems than we do. So I think we can learn a lot by looking at other cultures and how violence for example, is one of the interesting topics we might want to look at and compare our data versus theirs. Amanda Seewald (15:47): Thank you so much.


That concludes today's featured story from our "Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series. For more information about the advocacy work of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Languages and International Studies, please visit To learn more about this interview series, hear stories from other professionals, and explore how language moves our world, visit Thank you to our interviewees for sharing their stories, thank you to our series sponsors Vista Higher Learning, and thank you all for listening.

This series is made possible by a generous sponsorship from Vista Higher Learning. To learn more, please visit

_____________________________ About JNCL-NCLIS: Established in 1972, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) unites a national network of leading organizations and businesses comprised of over 300,000 language professionals to advocate for equitable language learning opportunities. Our mission is to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language. Contact:

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