Regardless of the reason for coming to the US, all immigrant children who speak a language other than English share a common risk: the danger of losing their mother tongue.
Maintaining one’s native language is important for several reasons:
- Native language retention and development affects personal identity and helps English learners develop a relationship with their culture and heritage, thereby contributing to a positive self-concept.
- Native language retention helps English learners maintain strong ties to their families and their cultural communities.
- Native language retention improves long-term academic achievement (Garcia-Vazquez et al., 1997).
- Native language retention improves economic opportunities, as multilingual individuals have better employment/business opportunities, both in the US and abroad.
Reading is an extremely important part of maintaining and strengthening native language skills. While listening to music, watching television programs, and watching films are usually passive activities, reading is an active, self-paced activity that provides exposure to a greater variety of vocabulary and provides repeated demonstrations of grammatical rules and sentence structures in use.
Bloom’s (2000) research demonstrates that topics of immediate interest to children are key to successful language acquisition. Therefore, allowing children to select reading material in their native languages according to their interests can be an extremely effective strategy for fostering native language retention and development. When we think of reading, most of us immediately think of books, but there are many other types of reading materials—many of which are available online—that can help children develop their reading skills, such as magazines, newspapers, travel brochures, sports blogs, recipes, and my favorite, comic books. And now I will explain why comic books are my favorite.
When my family and I fled Cuba in 1961, we left with little more than the clothes on our backs. Since we had family in Costa Rica, we were able to obtain tourist visas to leave the country, but that meant our luggage was limited to 21 kilos per person. My parents were both avid readers, especially my father, but their books were left behind.
Once we arrived in the US and my sister and I began attending school, our parents were worried that we would not retain our mother tongue, as everything we were exposed to at school was in English. English became the center of our world. Our classmates spoke English, TV programs were in English, books from the library… everything was in English. As a result, our parents decided that Spanish was the only language we would be allowed to speak at home.
Despite our parents’ efforts to encourage Spanish at home by reading and writing letters to our grandparents and aunts in Cuba, our father reading to us every night before bed, and the dreaded Spanish professor who would come to teach us grammar every Saturday, my sister and I began to speak less and less Spanish and only used it to communicate with our mom and dad.
By 1966, our dad, who had been a pharmacist in Cuba, had saved enough money to buy a building and open his own pharmacy. He set up a place in the storage room with a desk, a small TV, and a couch. Once we ended our day at school, we would head to the pharmacy… to our “office”… and do our homework.
One day, I noticed a new rack in the pharmacy with lots of magazines, paperback books, and, to my delight, comic books. I had inherited a passion for reading from my parents and I was so excited to see all these comic books. I grabbed five of them and headed back to the room and then realized… they were all in Spanish. At the time I couldn’t read Spanish, or so I thought. I did a great deal of complaining, but to no avail, because those comic books came every week. In Spanish.My dad gave me the dictionary that he used when he went to night school to learn English, but it was so slow to read and find the words and translate, and I almost gave up. But then… one week they brought comic books that featured Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and the gang.
I was around eleven or twelve years old, and these were fascinating. They were all about the life of teens, friendship, crushes, mischief, humor, and I was so enthralled with the stories that I couldn’t wait until the next comic books would arrive.
For years to come, comic books fueled my passion for the Spanish language. And even though I never attended school in Spanish, I considered myself proficient enough to take AP Spanish exams and get college credit for Spanish while still in high school. I am not going to attribute this to reading comic books alone.I know my parents’ insistence on speaking proper Spanish at home, the exposure to culture and history, the tertulias at the dinner table, and the abundance of Spanish literature books at home also influenced me greatly.
However, during those difficult years of not fitting in, between the Spanish literature books and Mr. Jordan the Saturday grammar teacher, the Archie comic books allowed me to escape to a world where I enjoyed reading in Spanish. It was entertaining, amusing, and fit perfectly with my teenage world.
Now thinking back, and knowing my dad like I do, I have a feeling the comic books were not a coincidence. After being here for several years, our parents knew that going back to Cuba was not an option, but they wanted to create a legacy for my sister and me, and their stories of home, family, and traditions would mean nothing if we lost the language of our family. Our parents were wise. Forcing us to learn the language would only be a temporary fix, but instilling a love for our heritage with meaningful ways of acquiring our Spanish would last a lifetime. So, those comic books that were sold at Aguirre Pharmacy in the 1960s were there purely by design.
To this day, I am still a fan of comic books and comic strips from the newspaper. And my repertoire has expanded to include Mafalda from Spain, all the superheroes, and one of my favorites… Garfield. Comics span all cultures, eras, ages, and interests, not to mention all the different types of humor. A topic in and of itself!
Bloom, P. (2000). How Children Learn the Meanings of Words.
Collier, V. (1995). “Acquiring a Second Language for School,” Directions in Language and Education, 1(4).
Garcia-Vazquez, E., Vazquez, L. A., Lopez, I. C., and Ward, W. (1997). “Language Proficiency and Academic Success: Relationships between proficiency in two languages and achievement among Mexican American students.” Bilingual Research Journal, 21(4), 395.
Nilda M. Aguirre, EdS, is executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. She also serves as the project director for NABE’s Project Para Todos program, a federally funded National Professional Development Program.
Project Para Todos is designed to better prepare and support K–8 in-service educators to implement evidence-based practices for teaching English learners (ELs) and dual language learners (DLs). Nilda has served as a classroom teacher, administrator, and professional development consultant, developing innovative curriculum embedded with best practices for ELs and strategies for gifted and talented ELs.
She has designed and implemented professional development programs for school systems in the US, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Europe. Nilda has also authored numerous publications, including curriculum guides for various state education agencies, newspaper and magazine articles, and several book chapters.