For Haitian Heritage Month this year, my heart swells with pride and joy that my American-born son will be participating in the Haitian Day Parade. His father and I registered him for the Mattahunt/Toussaint L’Ouverture Academy in Boston, as we are both Haitian immigrants who graduated from Boston Public Schools. We love the city of Boston and are extremely proud of the educational experiences that helped us grow and become who we are today. There were many factors that led us to say yes to the dual language program: the school was minutes away from our home; our child would be taught by teachers and cared for by staff whom we either grew up with or with whom I had developed a deep relationship as a part of the team that established this program. The evidence of deep care, commitment to excellence, and stirring up of intellectual curiosity of the students at the school had been clear for the many years we had collaborated with the school. Trusting our son to their care has proven a well-made decision. Watching our son blossom as he gets formally acquainted to his mother tongue through song, play, and social interactions has been an experience for the whole family.
Randomly, while at home, driving, or speaking with family members, our little one will break out in song or repeat a story he learned in Haitian Creole. He will sing the new ditties that he has learned at school, taught either by his music teacher or by his classroom teachers.
Bel lekol mwen (My beautiful school)
Ti lekol mwen (My little school)
Mwen renmen l anpil anpil (Which I love very much)
This was sung in the car while driving from a family get-together. It took me by surprise, as we were at the beginning of the academic year. The clarity of the phrasing and confidence as he sang while staring nonchalantly out the window caused a sense of elation to wash over me.
Pi bel peyi pase ou nan pwen
Fok mwen te kite ou
Pou mwen te kapab kopran vale ou
Fok mwen te lese ou, pou mwen te kap apwesye
Poum santi vreman tout sa ou te ye pou mwen
This one started out as a low hum during the nighttime routine, with my son looking sheepishly at me. He was still feeling out the words and the sounds, so it took me some additional time to recognize the tune. I lightly hummed back what I heard from him and re-sung the words with greater emphasis to support his pronunciation. His confidence grew and he began to sing it louder. I’d sing a line, he’d sing the next, and we’d end the stanza together. “I learned this song when I was little too,” I shared with him. The next day, in a call to his grandmother, I had him sing the tune. It brought much joy to my mom, who joined along. “Mwen se Ayisiyen?” he asked. I replied that both his father and I were born in Haiti; we are Haitian. He was born in the US—he is both Haitian and American.
In the American context, where Anglo-European cultural norms and practices are intrinsic in everyday experience, we sometimes forget how subsumed the cultural identities of Black immigrants can become, lost in the noises of normalcy. My son has been provided an oasis to just be himself in the plurality of his identities. He is growing up fully experiencing his identity as a multilingual Black boy. In the songs we teach the students to sing, in the fairy tales we choose to express to them, we provide our children the foundational vocabulary and reasoning skills to make sense of the world around them. These become the foundational experiences to help them develop literacy skills, reasoning, and communication practices. There is an assumption that Mary’s little lost lamb is universal, when in the Haitian culture it is the story of Bouki and Ti Malice that are our Aesop’s Fables. The nuances referenced in the more evolved literature of a community require familiarity with their basic frameworks.
Having his school learning connect to his home and cultural life has energized his appetite to learn more about his Haitian roots and about other cultures. He bridges between Haitian Kreyòl and English at the house all the time. When he sees or hears a bird chirp outside of his room window, he’ll say “Ti swazo” and then go into the song that he has learned at school. I, having forgotten most of the lyrics in Kreyòl, can only finish that famous line of the song “nan bwa ki tape koute.” These interactions have also reignited my passion to unpack my cultural assets through his experiences.
Finding the language to tell him about who he is and helping him grow confidently in his identity is a precious gift for him as a Black bilingual. His language skills are giving him the necessary fortitude to not feel lost nor be a part of a missed generation, but to confidently walk the plurality of his identity without fear. In his online perusal of toddler-focused videos, he has been exposed to Spanish and Korean while browsing. His confidence at knowing that he can learn other languages has him counting in Spanish, repeating Korean phrases from the countless Squid Game parodies on YouTube, and wanting to immerse himself more in learning Haitian Creole phrases for different contexts.
My little one feels empowered about his capability to be a learner because he feels in control. He knows he has support at home and at school and that he is setting the learning pace. As an immigrant parent who went through bilingual education in the US, I can see that my son is having the experience that I desired for myself and for others.
Language learning is a skill set that transcends the classroom and pollinates across subjects. It provides students with concrete skills for the process of learning that they can apply to different concepts. I would say that my son’s experience is atypical, but it is something that I have seen countless times in different settings. I have seen how urban American students thrive when exposed to Latin or Ancient Greek. The skills developed in learning these historical languages strengthen their cognitive and processing skills in a way that supports their academic learning in other subjects. I am a strong proponent for language access for all as a tool to create equity and rigor across the educational divide. Investment in this opportunity should be required as much as investment in other innovative areas.
Daphne Germain is an eleven-year veteran of the Boston Public Schools Office of English Learners, leading program planning and implementation. She has in-depth experience in how collaborative relationships with Black immigrant communities can develop to create new and innovative programs such as the first-in-the-nation Haitian dual language program, formally named the Toussaint L’Ouverture Academy. She is a member of the Massachusetts Association of Haitian Parents.