The Default Second Language

by: Christine Stoddard

Why Spanish should never be the only option for ESL parent support, and why it is neither fair nor effective to give children a job that is best left to a trained and certified adult…


Schools shouldn’t only serve students; they must serve parents as well, because educating a child is a collaborative process. But in order for a parent to participate, they must be able to communicate with their child’s teacher. That demands, at the very least, a common language. At most public schools across America, that language is English. Of course, not every parent speaks fluent English, which is a challenge schools should be required to accommodate.

The United States is a diverse country and although Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the country, that doesn’t mean Spanish should necessarily be the default second language. Spanish-only parent support does a disservice to parents who speak Chinese, Arabic, or another language. Furthermore, not all Latin American immigrants speak Spanish.

Many school administrators think they are addressing an influx of Latin American immigrants by increasing their Spanish-language support systems. While this is a valuable investment of time and resources for Spanish-speaking parents, it does little for those who don’t speak the language. In 2014, a record number of children fled Central America for the United States and in Guatemala alone, there are more than twenty Mayan languages.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, about twenty-five percent of children in the United States now hail from immigrant families. In the Public Policy Institute of California‘s analysis of the English proficiency of immigrants, forty-seven percent of immigrants who arrived to the United States in the last ten years reported speaking English “very well” or “well.” Fifty-three percent of them reported Spanish as their first language in the state with the highest Hispanic population (California). But, there are a few reasons why providing Spanish-only parent support is a problem.

This focus on Spanish ignores the fact that parent liaisons need to be aware of cultural differences among immigrants, not just language. Even if a parent does speak Spanish, their country (and even region) of origin affects their relationship to, and perception of, public schools. Some parents may come from a place where there are no public schools, only private and religious ones. Others may come from a place where children go to school just for the morning and come home in the afternoon or vice versa. Or, they come from areas where girls are not allowed to go to school and it’s routine to pull children out of school to have them work. There are many social norms that people who were born and raised in the United States and whose families have been here for generations may take for granted. Translators, interpreters, and parent liaisons must be aware of basic cultural differences.

When services for a parent’s language are not available, it places the burden on the child to serve as an interpreter. As my former college professor, Patricia Michelsen-King, a Federally-certified court interpreter, routinely says, “young children may become overwhelmed when they lack the linguistic abilities to easily transfer between languages. They are also likely to misunderstand and omit critical information. Ultimately, this forces a parent to make decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information.”

It is neither fair nor effective to give children a job that is best left to a trained and certified adult.

When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, I briefly studied a community of about 1,000 Mexican Mixtecs for my photo booklet on linguistic injustice in Virginia. I learned that Richmond’s Mixtec adults typically speak Spanish as a second language (and not necessarily fluently), but their first language is Mixtec. English is their third language, if they speak it at all. Many local public school teachers routinely assumed that these parents spoke Spanish because they were Mexican. Problems also arose with educating the children, but that’s a separate matter altogether. It can be especially hard for indigenous children to get the educational support they need.

Schools need to anticipate how they can serve parents of all linguistic backgrounds. What services must be available on-site? What can be outsourced? Since funding is often a struggle at public schools, it would be wiser to look to the community for help. Are there community groups that can refer volunteer interpreters? Are there local firms that can provide pro bono language services?

Offering Spanish translation and interpretation as the only language services means a lot of parents can’t take part in their child’s education. Spanish language support should exist among a range of culturally sensitive and linguistically feasible options available in every public school system. And the Spanish language support that’s in place needs to be better than it is.


Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-Scottish-American writer and artist originally from Virginia. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Ravishly, The Feminist Wire, Latin Trends, The Huffington Post, and beyond. In 2014, Folio Magazine named her one of the top 20 media visionaries in their 20s for founding Quail Bell Magazine. Christine currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is the associate editor for For Her and the creator of “Forget Fairytales” comics. Learn more at

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