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  • Writer's picturegina garcia

Language, bilingualism, & multilingualism in HSIs: Ideas for linguistic servingness.

As I reflect on my new book Transforming Hispanic-Serving Institutions for Equity & Justice, I note all the places where I could have said more; and more importantly, gaps in the HSI literature and knowledge creation around servingness practices at HSIs. Language is one of those areas that I have been thinking about a lot, but still haven’t fully expressed in writing the importance of embracing language, bilingualism, and multilingualism in HSIs. It’s ironic because there is an entire chapter dedicated to being a bilingual HSI in the book Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Opportunities for Colleges and Universities (chapter 4), yet I still feel like I haven’t said enough about the topic.


First let’s acknowledge that Hispanic and Latine/x people speak a lot of languages, and that language falls on a continuum. We speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, and many Indigenous languages such as Nahuatl, Tu’un Savi, K’iche’, Zapotec, Yucatec Maya, Quechua, Aymara, and Garífuna. Some of us are “no sabo kids,” some of us speak Spanglish, and some of us are fully bilingual or multilingual. This is one of the complications of living within the “H” of HSIs. We are a complex people.

Two students talking.
Two students talking. Photo by: Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels.

Yet we cannot deny that Spanish is an important language for many of the students who attend HSIs. Spanish makes folx feel like they belong on campus, including students, faculty, and staff. Within the servingness framework we call this “validation.” To honor the linguistic abilities of the people in HSIs is an important form of validation, and HSIs should make this a part of their servingness efforts. Spanish is also an essential way to serve families in HSIs. Here I offer 5 ways for HSIs to be more intentional in linguistic servingness. These ideas are motivated by empirical data I have collected and interactions I have had with educators at HSIs across the country. Some of these ideas have also been discussed on the podcast ¿Qué pasa, HSIs?

  1. Hire Spanish-speaking educators, especially those that interface with families and community members. This includes bilingual outreach and recruitment staff and bilingual financial aid advisors who are essential to the recruitment process. Institutional advancement, government relations, and community engagement offices should also be intentional about hiring bilingual staff who can engage with Spanish-speaking community organizations, donors, and funders. This is vital to the relationship building process that should be happening between HSIs and local communities.

  2. PAY Spanish-speaking educators. Period!!!! This one is important. Speaking multiple languages is a skill that should be compensated. If speaking Spanish is a requirement of the job, then it must be compensated. But even if it is not a requirement, it should still be compensated. What I have learned is that Spanish-speaking educators are going to serve Latine/x students and their families, whether you pay them or not; but you should pay them for this valuable skill.

  3. Serve families in Spanish, which may include outreach and admission days, orientations, family weekends, and graduations. There are multiple points throughout a student’s career when you can be intentional with linguistic engagement of families. And remember that families may include multiple generations, from abuelxs to sobrinxs. If the event has a limited capacity, consider finding a larger venue in order to be more inclusive of the family. Serving families at events should be bilingual, but it should also be bicultural, which may include food and music. This is an opportunity to hire bilingual and bicultural vendors, which is another way to engage and support the local Latine/x community. In other words, support Latine/x-owned businesses that are hustling in the community.

  4. Serve heritage speakers within the curriculum. Students who are heritage speakers have different curricular needs that ought to be met. Language departments should be involved in HSI efforts, thinking about the best ways to support heritage speakers across the curriculum. Some heritage students may want to get a certificate of bilingualism, and others may want to get a second major or minor in Spanish. There should be a specific language track for heritage speakers. One of the most common ways I have talked about Spanish in the classroom is through translanguaging, which means accepting students’ full repertoire of language. Translanguaging allows students to express themselves, verbally and in writing, accessing the languages that make the most sense to them. There are two books that I highly recommend that talk about this within the HSI context:

    1. Kirklighter, C., Cárdenas, D., & Wolff Murphy, S. (Eds.). (2007). Teaching writing with Latino/a students: Lessons learned at Hispanic-Serving Institutions. SUNY.

    2. Baca, I., Hinojosa, Y. I., & Wolff Murphy, S. (Eds.). (2019). Bordered writers: Latinx identities and literacy practices at Hispanic-Serving Institutions. SUNY.

  5. Train students to be bilingual professionals. There are many professions that interact with the community, and there is growing need for Spanish speaking professionals to serve Spanish speaking people. Some of the most vital service areas to consider are those in health care, including emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, nurses, doctors, dentists, and optometrists. Heritage speakers need help in this area, as they should be trained to speak the Spanish of their fields. Other helping professions also have a growing need for bilingual people including social workers, counselors, and psychologists. Again, don’t assume that heritage speakers are equipped to help people without proper training in the Spanish of their fields. Police officers, lawyers, and judges serving Latine/x communities may also need to be trained to speak accessible Spanish. While the language is necessary, the cultural competence dimension of serving Spanish-speaking communities is also important and should be a part of the bilingual curriculum.

There are many recommendations I could make, but the bottom line is that servingness should be intersectional, which includes language. How are you engaging with linguistic servingness?

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