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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 26, 2024

Language as a toolkit for building bridges and breaking barriers

Community members reflect on language accessibility and learning opportunities in the Greater Boston area.

Elise Webster, a Tufts student who graduated in 2022, is seated next to her Portuguese-speaking learner Regiane at Potencia.

Elise Webster (A22) and her Portuguese-speaking learner Regiane in 2019.

In Medford and Somerville, 29% of people five years and older speak a language other than English at home, in part due to both cities’ relatively large foreign-born populations. Highly represented languages include Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Nepali and Mandarin, among many more. Tufts is situated at the center of this linguistic melting pot, and you can see and hear these languages thriving in schools, shops and on public signage.

While there is no official language of the United States, it is safe to say that English is our lingua franca. A two-way struggle has been underfoot in this regard. On one hand, the U.S. has been described as a “graveyard” for non-English languages. From 2002–2017, a Massachusetts statute halted multilingual education in public schools in favor of English immersion. On the other hand, English language learners lack sufficient resources for translation and language education.

For Amanda Wang and Jun Yoon, the latter was a problem they couldn’t ignore. They met as classmates in the Masters of Science program in Innovation & Management at Tufts, and found that the local demand for English language education surpassed available supply. Taking inspiration from Yoon’s experience with social businesses in Bangladesh and working with North Korean refugees, the pair co-founded Potencia out of Malden in 2019.

Potencia is a nonprofit that trains volunteer tutors and facilitates English language classes for adult immigrant learners.

“We thought this [was a] very interesting idea to explore, and also as international students, naturally we went through similar barriers that a lot of new immigrants in this country have faced,” Wang said. “So we kind of feel their situation and we also want to do something to help.”

Wang pivoted to social impact work from the finance industry as part of a journey to find more fulfillment.

“I personally didn’t feel very attached to the work I was doing [in finance],” Wang said. “I [was] making an impact on the money certain people have, but I [was] not making an impact to contribute to a bigger social good, or not directly contributing.”

Potencia’s six chapters draw from university students as the foundation of volunteer tutors, who take from their experience more than just skills in communication, leadership and intercultural competency.

“When we ask [volunteers] what their favorite part of tutoring is, many of them say it’s the kind of meaningful relationship they build with their community members … outside your school boundary,” Yoon said. “It’s something that is not easily achievable, from my experience as a college student.”

For the five full time staff at the Welcome Project in Somerville, their work in immigrant advocacy is also fueled by personal investment in issues of immigrant well-being. The Welcome Project was formed in 1987 as part of an initiative during the racial integration of the Mystic Public Housing Development.

Grant Sabean, director of development and communications at the Welcome Project, introduced their various language programs, which are tailored to popular needs in the community. One is English For Parents, which aims to increase linguistic confidence among parents to help them engage with their child’s homework and educators. Another is the Liaison Interpreter Program with Somerville, known as LIPS, which teaches interpretation to bilingual high school students, most of whom are children of immigrants.

“Many folks who arrive in this country just are struggling to survive, and don’t have as much time or freedom … to really go and learn English at a high competency,” Sabean said. “So as the next generation who does have that gift of [bilingualism], they can use that skill to really achieve a lot for the community.”

Students enrolled in LIPS are paid for their time. However, interpretation training is a difficult commitment, especially when faced with family pressure to succeed in school.

“There’s a misconception that just because you can speak two languages, you can translate,” Sabean said. “[LIPS is] recognizing not only their time commitment to school, being a good student, but [that] we are recruiting from the immigrant community, and there is a very large amount of trauma that is endemic to the immigrant community of America.”

Natasha Warikoo, Lenore Stern professor of social sciences in the department of sociology,  pointed out another assumption that should be avoided.

“Not all immigrants are English language learners, and not all English language learners are immigrants,” Warikoo said.

Language ability is increasingly viewed as a dimension of inequality. Even with a high school or  advanced degree, access to work, benefits, assistance and private life can be greatly hindered.

“[English language learners] have more barriers to educational success,” Warikoo said. “In education, we think about it as a form of inequality, and into adulthood, we know that fluency in English is critical for many kinds of jobs.”

In this vein, Yoon explained English competency in the U.S. as an issue connected to justice. This rings true on everyday bases, when language barriers enable the manipulation of immigrants or exacerbate barriers to housing assistance.

“There’s a term called transitional justice, which academically has been mostly adopted in the setting of when a nation or state changes from, for example, from a war-torn state to a more peaceful state,” Yoon said. “I think the transitional justice we can provide can be applied to [migrants], people who are actually transitioning from one state of living to another state of being which could be totally new.”

Linguistic adjustment is part of a process known as assimilation.

“The word assimilation can have two meanings: One is normative and one is empirical,” Warikoo said. “Sometimes people bristle at the word assimilation because it feels like it’s placing a value on changing … on becoming culturally what we think of [as] mainstream American, whatever that means.”

“The second question is empirical,” Warikoo continued. “Sociologists might look at average household income, they might look at all intermarriage rates, they might look at residential integration, and use these as measures of assimilation.”

Wang, as a speaker of multiple languages, offered her opinion on the profundity of language and what it embodies.

“One language is one unique culture, and when you are able to speak or learn another language, you’re not just building your language skills, but you’re also building your intercultural understanding and it opens up your mind,” Wang said. “I realized that my personality can be a little bit different as I speak in different languages. So it’s also a good way to compare and reflect on myself.”

Language is a basic communication tool, a socioeconomic obstacle and a celebration of a multicultural United States. The role of language cannot be understated when it comes to quality of life for immigrants, as shown by the heartfelt dedication of local organizations. Greater Boston can become a welcoming home for linguistic diversity if civil society and government promote accessibility and curiosity.

A local opportunity to engage with multilingual conversation will come this October or November during Intercambio, an event hosted by the Welcome Project and the Somerville Arts Council.