I was invited recently to Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Prince George’s County to speak to children about my college experience. The children there were struggling with the language learning barrier as newcomers.

Their English teacher, Jodi Johnson, an African American educator who is a non-Spanish speaker, displayed an immense desire to elevate their stories and help them learn the language. Ms. Johnson shared with me her concerns about the students’ learning process and how she wanted her students to feel empowered.

“I want them to know that they can still be themselves,” Ms. Johnson said.

Language justice in education is a pressing issue. Despite their best efforts, many educators are left without adequate support, often due to underfunding and political considerations.

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This problem is intensified by a broader issue: the lack of culturally relevant teaching. Research highlights these disparities and calls for increased funding and comprehensive policies to ensure equitable education.

Morelys Urbano
Morelys Urbano is a student and a filmmaking fellow at the Center for New Media and Strategic Initiatives at Morgan State University. (Handout)

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a leading educational scholar, emphasizes that culturally relevant teaching — which includes student learning, cultural competence and critical consciousness — not only supports academic success but also helps students feel respected for their unique backgrounds.

Unfortunately, efforts to implement such methods often face resistance due to political opposition arising from misconceptions about concepts such as critical race theory, which are unfairly linked to culturally relevant teaching by some critics.

At Eisenhower, I shared my story of coming to America when I was 15 years old. I was born in the Dominican Republic and partially raised in Spain. So, the Spanish language had been my only form of communication as I reached by teen years.

Once in the U.S., I experienced what the Eisenhower students were experiencing — the difficulties of navigating the language barriers. I was placed in an English for speakers of other languages class with other newcomer students facing the same issue. Our ESOL class was for many of us the only safe space at school, the only class in which our inability to speak English fluently was not targeted or weaponized.

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The English barrier was not the only struggle I endured. As a Black Latina, my identity was questioned often. When my U.S.-born peers would approach me, I’d greet them with “no speak English” in a shy tone. They had a difficult time understanding how a Black girl didn’t speak English. From this experience grew a desire to teach others about my identity. That evolved into my first few versions of advocacy statements. The term Afro-Latina became a common part of my vocabulary. With that, I learned the conjugation of the verb “to be” that gave the noun a much bigger meaning.

“I am Afro-Latina.”

My time in the ESOL program was notably brief. Thanks to my active engagement in social issues on social media, I frequently interacted with English speakers. This immersion enabled me to test out of the program within just five months of arriving in the country.

Nonetheless, the language barrier at school remained challenging. Although I knew enough English to exit the ESOL program, I didn’t feel fluent enough to advocate for myself within the high school system. My mom, who didn’t speak English, couldn’t assist me either.

This social anxiety prevented me from speaking to counselors for the first three years of high school. Consequently, I wasn’t registered for the required classes to graduate, leading me to repeat my junior year due to a missing history credit.

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But the anxiety that the English language generated in me unexpectedly worked to my advantage. Throughout high school, I spent much of my time alone, reading books during lunch and listening to music.

I deliberately chose to engage with English in my free time: The books I read, the shows I watched and the music I listened to were all in English.

Learning English felt like a survival tactic rather than a learning journey. I learned English to be able to explain myself, to not be denied opportunities, to be accepted at school, to not be laughed at. My connection with the language was cold and transactional.

I never fully understood the meaning of the Spanish language in my life until I was pushed to abandon it when I started learning English. My earliest and most precious memories were in Spanish and so were my first words, the first poems that I wrote and most of the cultural ties to my identity.

Spanish was the language of love, the language of kindness, the language of family, the language of music. English became the language of transactions, of denied applications, of discrimination, etc.

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As I spoke to the middle school students from Dwight D. Eisenhower, I remembered my learning process. Many of these students come from countries where decades of U.S. and Western imperialism and colonialism have harmed the economy and forced displacement. Many of them are not here by choice, and the idea of learning English threatens their identity.

Regardless of how educators might feel about students who take much longer to adapt, their intention as kids is not to refuse to learn the language. Instead, many feel scared because when life in the U.S. threatens to take away your identity, the only thing you have left is your native tongue.

Language justice in education is essential for creating an inclusive and supportive environment for non-English speakers. It is important for anglophones to foster a more empathetic learning process while also respecting people’s rights to speak their own language.

Students feel a sense of belonging and pride in their cultural heritage. We can achieve true language justice, ensuring that every student can succeed without sacrificing their identity.

Morelys Urbano is a student and a filmmaking fellow at the Center for New Media and Strategic Initiatives at Morgan State University. She is also currently serving as an intern in Congress for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.