“My dad used to speak Spanish to me, but he kind of forgot the language, so now we just speak English,” said Isa McKerley, a bilingual sophomore in Berkeley International High School (BIHS).
As the most populous state in the country, California’s borders have historically been home to people from many different places. Although the US has no official language, English is what is spoken throughout the public school system. McKerley’s experience — one of learning and struggling to balance multiple languages — is shared by many other students at Berkeley High School (BHS).
Sota Hayashi, another bilingual sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), speaks English and Japanese. “I don’t necessarily feel more connected to a certain language,” he said. “When I’m at home, I usually speak Japanese because it’s just easier for my parents.”
According to multilingual students at BHS, there are a variety of ways to balance their use of each language, lest they forget one.
Antonio Nordman, a sophomore in AC, is fluent in both Italian and English.
“It’s complicated,” Nordman said. “Of course I speak English in my day-to-day life, so I do feel connected to English in that way, but speaking Italian really makes me feel connected to Italy and my family and my heritage.”
“I don’t necessarily feel more connected to Spanish, it’s just a language that I like more,” said McKerley. “I just feel more connected to my mom’s side of the family. My mom and her family are Mexican, and they are people I just have a great appreciation for.”
McKerley attended Sylvia Mendez Elementary School, a Two-Way Immersion (TWI) school, but has since gone to mostly English-centered schools like BHS. When asked whether or not she thinks her Spanish language skills have regressed after attending primarily English-speaking schools, McKerley said she “100 percent” believes they have.
“After I was put in English Language Development (ELD), I started to believe speaking Spanish was bad and that having an accent was bad,” McKerley explained. “I was only put into that program to begin with because I had an accent as a kid.”
When asked if there is pressure to speak English in school, Hayashi said, “Yes, most definitely, I feel like being surrounded by English speakers, I have come accustomed to speaking English.”
McKerley echoed this sentiment. “There is definitely pressure to speak English in school,” she said. “I can’t really speak Spanish to anyone in school — I have no Spanish-speaking friends.”
“I’ll be honest, right now I’m not as fluent in Italian as I used to be,” said Nordman. “My mom is the only person I can really consistently speak Italian with because I have no Italian-speaking friends and there isn’t an Italian language class at school.”
Despite all of this, Nordman says that he doesn’t feel any cultural pressure to only speak English. “Personally, I think being able to speak another language is super cool, especially a less common one like Italian,” he said. “In my experience, other people appreciate the fact that I can speak two languages.”
McKerley explained that being bilingual has impacts outside of the classroom as well.
“It’s a little weird to speak Spanish to someone just based on an assumption they speak Spanish, but if there’s a waiter who I hear speaking Spanish, I’ll speak Spanish to them,” she said. “[It] feels good to connect to someone in that way.”