JNCL-NCLIS Insights: Language at the Intersection
About the Episode:
JNCL-NCLIS is proud to introduce the thirteenth and final episode of our Language at the Intersection Insights Interview series. In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Aradhana Mudambi, Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools, who will help us explore the intersection of Language and Social Justice, 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 the National Council for Language and International Studies JNCL-NCLIS. And today we introduce you to Dr. Aradhana Mudambi, who is the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools who will help us explore the intersection of language and social justice and how multilingualism moves her world. Dr. Mudambi (01:05): Hi, my name is Dr. Aradhana Mudambi. I am the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools. So my language intersection is language and social justice. My key story starts when I was in second grade, so I entered school, speaking Tamil at home. And by the time I got to second grade, I had learned some English, you know, but I was still an emergent bilingual. And I overheard a conversation between my second grade teacher and my mom. And my second grade teacher said that she had really thought I was smart, but seeing the test results, she saw that my vocabulary was not that strong and this absolutely devastated me. I believed that I wasn't smart. And I believed very strongly that, you know, my vocabulary was not good and that was not gonna change. Not even understanding that I was learning another language, right. So I get to high school and I'm a junior in high school.
I'm talking to my US History AP teacher. And she tells me that, you know, she really found me very bright and that my vocabulary was strong. I was a strong writer and I argued with her. I told her that it wasn't true that I knew that I, that I'm not smart. I told her that my vocabulary was definitely not strong. And her response was really interesting. She's like, okay. So can we say that if we add up all of your vocabulary for all the languages that you speak, that your vocabulary is really strong, can we at least say that? And I thought about it for a second, because I had never thought in this fashion before. And I said, okay, now I didn't accept that I was smart at that moment, but I accepted that my vocabulary was larger than what I was giving myself credit for. And over the years after that, that stayed with me and I started reanalyzing and I realized that what my second grade teacher had said was wrong. And so today it's really important to, to me that no other child feels the way I had felt or believes what I believed about myself. And to me, that is social justice, where we make sure that all of our kids realize that their multilingualism is an asset, not a deficit. Amanda Seewald (03:14): Wow. That's quite powerful. And I love that. You're willing to share your story like that. I think it's going to make a difference, not only for the people who are there, but I want every child that I work with in all the different schools I'm in around the country to hear what you just said. I'm going to just ask you a few questions just because I want to hear more if that's okay with you. Dr. Mudambi (03:46): Sure. Amanda Seewald (03:46): That was just phenomenal. If you were to say, where do you use your languages in your life and what different parts of your life do you use your multiple languages and how? Dr. Mudambi (03:56): It's, it's more than just using. I am the multiple languages that I use. So, I mean, I speak Tamil, I speak Spanish and I speak English. And I mean, I wake up, I'm thinking in all three languages, I speak to family members. I speak to friends in all of these languages. I speak to colleagues in various languages. I watch TV in all of these languages. I read books, I read magazines, you know, in different languages. Everything I do is in these different languages, right? Travel. I use these languages. It's, it's really what I breathe and what I, what I live. Amanda Seewald (04:32): And how would you say, um, that a person who is a multilingual person, which, you know, many of the people in the audience will be, and you know, so I am as well. How would you say that a person who's multilingual and or multicultural has a multilingual and multicultural identity? How does that influence the way you see the world? Dr. Mudambi (04:49): I really think it influences in a way that it's not a single perspective. I can see the difference in how my family does things, how I see things, um, based on that intersection of an Indian identity and an American identity, right? There's this transcultural acculturation that happens where I have pulled from both both cultures, but it also allows me to see, that Spanish was an additional language that came into my life and it allows me to see through perspectives of various Hispanic cultures. And that just makes it easier to get to know people around the world. It makes travel richer. It makes the relationships with my students richer. Um, I'm able to see the world through their eyes and that's just so amazing. It, it just riches my life so much being able to do that. Amanda Seewald (05:36): And since you're talking about the education piece and I want to loop back to kind of, you know, equity and, uh, and social justice, how do you see that language, education and equitable opportunities for multilingual learners connects to social justice and equity in a way that we can articulate to the public at large? Dr. Mudambi (05:54): Absolutely. I think there are two facets to that. The first one is that students have a right to their home language. And I think we forget about that. We think of it as an add-on. It's not an add-on, this is their birthright, right? Um, we say patrimonio in Spanish, that's what that is. They, we don't want our kids to lose their language. We want them to be able to build it because identity is tied so much into language. You know, there's research studies that say that when students feel that their home language is respected, there's a greater chance of them graduating from high school because they feel that they belong. And we want our kids to feel like they belong in this world. So that's one aspect of it, you know, for them to be able to speak to their family members, to be able to speak to their grandparents.
You know, I don't know what more can be social justice than making sure that students have connections with their family. So that's one aspect of it, but also there's research that tells us that when students are able to develop their home language and able to keep that, you know, they become completely biliterate, then we actually close the opportunity gap for our emergent bilinguals. And that's incredibly important if not, our emergent bilinguals on average end up, you know, we, we end up failing them. We end, they end up with an opportunity gap that we've created. So that's the other aspect of social justice. Amanda Seewald (07:15): Since we're talking about social justice and I, you know, the bulk of your work and, you know, really the focus of your, of your website and everything is this idea of how language intersects with racial equity and social justice. And I'd really like to just give you an opportunity to talk about that idea of where racial equity connects to social justice. Maybe not even in terms of just education, but really in, in a broader terms as well. Dr. Mudambi (07:37): Well, you know, we see that historically. So throughout the country, we've had, you know, um, from the beginning of, you know, the inception of what we think of as our colonized existence, right? We've had bilingual schools for German and English. We've had schools that are Italian and English. We've had schools that are French and English, but we did our best to make sure that Native Americans weren't able to keep their language. We ensured that those we enslaved were not able to keep their language. So language and race have always had something to do with one another. And we continue to do that. This idea of trying to Americanize students is really trying to make students white. And we do that by taking away their language because culture and identity is so entwined in language. And we want to make sure that we're not doing that to our students, that we're giving them the opportunity to hold onto their heritage, to hold onto their language, because then they can hold onto who they are. Amanda Seewald (08:39): Wonderful. I, I really appreciate those words and, uh, really rings true for all of the things that we are working for as advocates in language, education, equitable opportunities. And so I, to me, the cultural aspects have always been a part of something that I, that I've sought out, you know, to, to try and find beyond my own culture. And I, and I feel as though what you, what you're sharing allows it to be such an important way of looking at multilingualism as an asset for a human, doesn't matter, the age doesn't matter, the walk of life. And so I, I would wonder in your role as a, a leader, as a parent, as a, or if you're a parent and, or as a, as an educator, where, where do you see that the multilingualism and the multiculturalism that you have shapes the way that you take on your daily life? Dr. Mudambi (09:36): Well, you know, I'll, I'll address that from the, uh, perspective of parent. So I was born and raised in the United States. I was born and raised in Houston, and I was very fortunate that my parents recognize the importance of us, uh, keeping our home language. And now I have a daughter who's third generation, and I haven't changed that perspective with her. So I stayed home for the first five years. You know, I let my career halt, everything. Why, because, you know, one, of course I wanted to spend time with her, but also because I wanted to make sure that she had her home language, and that's the only language in which I spoke with her, because that is part of who she is. And I don't have the right to take that away from her. And since then we continue to use the home language at home.
Whenever we, we talk, you know, the first thing I tell her Asma, which means let's get up. So I start the day that way with her, we continue to talk Tamil all day she's required by her mother to take classes in Tamil so, you know, I didn't have anything close by. So I sought out somebody in India who was able to teach her over Skype, and now they've moved to zoom. So Monday through Thursday, she's taking Tamil classes. She takes a class, um, she's very much into art. So she takes a class in Indian folk art, and that class is conducted in Tamil. So I made sure that she has the opportunity to keep her home language, to keep her identity, to keep her culture. And this is what I want for every single student whom we have. So I have started dual language programs when I was at, I was at Windham Public Schools in Connecticut, and there, we started a one way dual language program. We were 70%, uh, Hispanic about a third of our students were emergent bilinguals with a background in Spanish. So we started a dual language program that exists in every single school, so that every single child, when they would enter elementary school, they could enter a dual language program and keep their heritage alive. That was incredibly important to me. And that continues to be incredibly important to me. So it definitely shapes what I do as a parent, what I do as an educator. Amanda Seewald (11:41): That's wonderful. And you know, I'm a dual language person as well. And so we definitely have a lot more to talk about. We want to make sure that the concept of social justice is very well linked to language that the intersection is clear and that we talk about equity and social justice in terms of language. And so if you were going to give advice to the advocates for what they should say, when they go out, you know, what would you, what would you tell them to say? Dr. Mudambi (12:08): You know, I really would suggest talking about the academics if we want our students to succeed. And that's why education exists, right? If we want students to succeed, we wanna make sure that they can develop their home language because the research is absolutely clear that students who have the opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate with one of the languages being their heritage language, then, only then, are we closing the opportunity gap for emergent bilinguals? And we want to make sure our legislators know that. Amanda Seewald (12:43): That's great. And with regard to equity, if somebody said to you, what does equity look like for a multilingual person? Maybe not even student, just in general, what does equity look like for a multilingual person in our society? Dr. Mudambi (12:57): So equity in itself is giving everybody what they need to be able to succeed. And especially, you know, educational equity is giving those groups who have been historically discriminated, what they need to be able to succeed. So for multilingual learners, we know that there has been historical discrimination against, um, this group of students. So equity for multilingual learners is giving them the opportunity to, well, we need to close the opportunity gap for them, right? So for that to happen, we have to make sure that students have the opportunity to learn their home languages and to become strong in their home languages. We need to make sure that we have dual language programming that follows the research. So we have, we're following the non-negotiables of dual language as the research tells us, and that we have those opportunities for every single child who speaks a language other than English at home. That is what equity looks like. And equity also looks the way equity looks is where schools are actually elevating the status of their home language. So for example, making students proud to be bilingual or multilingual, you know, for them to be proud of themselves, to be proud of their culture, to be proud of the differences that they bring to the school system. Amanda Seewald (14:21): When you, when you're an educator, you see everything through the lens of education, because it's true, I mean, but it, but it's a fact, you see everything that goes on in society through the lens of education, because that's really what impacts everything. And until we figure out how to do that in an equitable, realistic way, that honors the identities of everyone who passes through our classrooms and into our, our schools, that we can't make the changes that we need to make societally.
Dr. Mudambi (15:01): So one of the things that I have realized is that dual language education really is a civil rights movement. So one thing that I do often is compare the desegregation movement in the Houston Independent School District and dual language education. So Houston was actually the largest Jim Crowe system in the south. And the desegregation movement at the schools lasted for a very long time. 1954 was Brown versus Board of Education. And so since the fifties, the board of education at, in Houston was talking about desegregation and why they couldn't, they couldn't move forward. You know, they said that we need to make hay slowly. So basically they were trying to avoid desegregating the schools. And if you look at all of the reasons that they gave not to desegregate, they're the exact same reasons that people give not to have dual language education. So what we realize is that the issue has changed, but the biases are still the same. And that to me is incredibly powerful and incredibly telling as to why ensuring that kids have their home language is a social justice movement, is about equity. Amanda Seewald (16:13): Wow, that's, that's just a, a beautiful way of looking at it as well. Just to kind of give us some, some really clear and tangible examples. And we are so grateful to you for sharing your story and for being so generous with your time. Amanda Seewald (16:43): 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 www.languagepolicy.org. To learn more about this interview series, hear stories from other professionals and explore how language moves our world. Visit www.languagepolicy.org/language at the intersection. 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 https://vistahigherlearning.com/.
_____________________________ 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: firstname.lastname@example.org