The student news site of Benilde-St. Margaret's School in St. Louis Park, MN

Speaking of Languages: Stories of Multilingual Students

The bilingual and multilingual population of students at BSM shared their experiences and stories with the Knight Errant. Here, we honor their perspectives, which often go untranslated in our English-speaking halls.

October 2, 2015

Tuan Truing who speaks Englis, Vietnamese, and Cantonese
Elle Ryan
Tuan Truong who speaks English, Vietnamese, and Cantonese.

“Sometimes out of the blue, I’m just reading a book, or talking to someone and then my mind drifts off and suddenly I’m speaking [Tagalog], and I don’t even realize I’m speaking my language.” Senior Gale Gerada speaks both Tagalog and English, a cherished ability which allows her to have a multilingual and multicultural experience that a growing population of BSM shares in common.

According to a Knight Errant survey, 17.6% of the student body speaks a language other than English, whether it be among their family, friends, or in a wider cultural community. “I am Mexican, obviously, so [speaking another language] represents and means a lot to me. I am able to show off my culture when I speak in Spanish and eat Hispanic food and listen to music. I can show people a new language and new things,” senior Jesus Machuca said.

For many students, speaking another language serves to bridge their cultural heritage with their American identity. “I think that it’s great to know and speak two languages, and it opens perspectives in both cultures. I’m really appreciative that I get both perspectives,” sophomore Florencia Padilla, who speaks Spanish and English, said.

The ability to speak a language other than English connects students to another cultural community. “It’s nice for traveling because when I go to Russia I can fit in, and I can understand what is going on.  I can read the signs, hear the conversations, and I don’t feel left out,” senior Rachael Long, who speaks Russian and English, said.

When their parents don’t speak English, BSM’s bilingual students often assume the responsibility as their household’s interpreter. For Machuca and senior Vivian Lu, this is a full time role. “[I translate ] all of the time. In Target, school events––like parent teacher meetings––and I mostly take care of everything at home. I have to call the cable guy, the insurance, all of those things,” Lu, who speaks Chinese, Taiwanese, and English said.

Because he speaks Spanish, Machuca has been able to help out at both his father’s business and his own place of work. “I am able to help with my dad’s business, and I help him out with deals and calls. My dad owns a pallet company, and I do most of the communicating,” Machuca said. “Where I work, you are constantly talking to people. There was this one guy who went to a different cashier and he was struggling because he couldn’t speak English, so they called me over, and I had to help out.”

Starting this year, the task of interpreting for Spanish-speaking families, like the Machucas, fell upon Mr. Matt McMerty-­Brummer, one of the senior high Spanish teachers. “We just want to make sure both the students and the families have a positive start. We want them to feel comfortable and welcome, so it’s just a way that BSM tries to reach out and support them,” McMerty­-Brummer said on his new position.

Of course, speaking two languages comes with its own trial and error. “It was a bit difficult at the beginning to speak different languages with different people because sometimes the idea that can be transferred easily in Mandarin can be hard to transfer in English. But now I’m more adept at switching between languages as I practice everyday,” senior Jimmy Peng said.

Switching between two languages is an adjustment that students constantly grapple with.  “I came up with a system that if I’m speaking English, I have to think in English; if I’m speaking Chinese, I have to think in Chinese. So far, I don’t have much difficulty switching because I only talk to a certain number of people who speak Chinese as well,” Lu said.

Gale Gerada who speaks Tagalog and English.
Elle Ryan
Gale Gerada who speaks Tagalog and English.

One common struggle many BSM bilingual students experience is the process of entering an English speaking school. “BSM is friendly, so it is not that hard [to acclimate to], but at first it was kind of a struggle because of a new environment and it is weird to adapt to a new culture,” junior Tuan Truong, who speaks Vietnamese, Cantonese, and English, said.

“I struggled with [switching between two languages] when I first got here. I had all these things I wanted to say, but even though I spoke English, I still had to make sure I was getting it right,” Gerada said.

For Jesus Machuca, speaking Spanish is intrinsic to his identity. “My favorite Spanish phrase is ‘Cuando hablas dos lenguajes vales por dos’. This phrase means ‘if you speak two languages you are worth two people,’ and my mom says this to me,” Machuca said.

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  • C

    Claire SheaOct 4, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    Awesome article! The future is in those that can communicate with others, and for our next generations, that will bring about the necessity of speaking more than one language. So proud of the students mentioned in this article–your mom was right, Jesus, there’s a wealth of truth in that quote. Never forget that!

  • M

    mick hawkinsOct 4, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    This was really an insightful article; I found it to be very interesting and
    thought provoking.

    Great contribution, Carolina.

    M. Hawkins