June 29 2015

A central message of National Immigrant Heritage Month is that everyone, no matter where they were born, has something to contribute.  And through the #Health4All campaign, we want to ensure everyone has access to health care so nothing gets in the way of their contributions to society.  For those of us who came to the United States from a country where a language other than English is spoken, we’ve brought our language diversity with us.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always embraced.

When I came to Upland, California from Mexico at the age of 10 with my mother and sister to reunite with my father who had already been working here in the fields and in manufacturing, I was the only one in my class who didn’t speak English. There was no intentional instruction in how to speak, read or write English. In fact, one of my peers had to sit with me and translate what the teacher would say, somewhat begrudgingly, because my teacher did not know what to do with me.

It was an overwhelmingly and painfully difficult time – I was unable to communicate effectively with my peers, felt voiceless in my new surroundings,  and couldn’t follow what was happening in class the way I did in Mexico where I excelled academically. I lost my confidence but not my drive. It wasn’t until I was allowed to tag along to my mother’s evening adult education class that I actually started to learn English properly. Though I felt I was constantly trying to catch up, my academic performance improved, and I eventually went on to college and worked in the California State Legislature on education policy before joining The California Endowment.

My experience, and that of so many other English learners, illustrates that too often, arriving in elementary or secondary school speaking another language is seen as an impediment — something to be quickly “overcome” — rather than enhance or embrace the asset it is.  This stems from an outdated notion prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century when it was thought that speaking more than one language at a young age limited intellectual growth and caused confusion.  Today we know that the ability to speak multiple languages has various benefits on cognitive development, thanks to many studies, including a recent University of Chicago study that found that bilingual children tend to be better communicators. And then there’s the practical advantage of being able to converse with more people in an ever evolving global economy.

All of this is great news for California, where more than 43 percent of public school students speak a language other than English at home.  Of these, more than half are classified as English learners, meaning they’re still in the process of learning English to become fully proficient and have the potential of becoming the bilingual doctors, nurses and teachers of the future.

Since educational success and positive health outcomes are linked, The California Endowment is working with educators, students, and communities to carry out California’s new school funding law, the Local Control Funding Formula. The law increases funds to school districts serving students with the greatest needs and spells out new measurements of success that are directly related to student health and wellness.  This includes ensuring that English learners are getting the instruction and supports they need to excel academically, because when they excel, California wins, as they’ll be able to contribute more to their families and communities, and live a healthier life.

And to me, that’s what #Health4All is all about — making sure nothing gets in the way of immigrants’ abilities to contribute to this great state.