Tampa Bay area schools a tapestry of languages
Official reports disguise Hillsborough schools' real diversity. Ethnic categories are usually broad - black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, multiracial. It's the languages spoken at home that reveal how much of the globe the families of Hillsborough County represent. "The languages are just mind-boggling," said Sandra Rosario, Hillsborough schools' supervisor of programs for English Language Learners. "They're a truer flavor of the cultures, the regions."Students in Hillsborough schools spoke more than 150 foreign languages at home when their parents enrolled them. The languages range from Abkhazian, spoken in the region between Russia and the Black Sea, to Zulu, an official language of South Africa. Nearly 31,000 students spoke Spanish at home; six of the 20 most commonly spoken languages are from India. A district tally shows nearly every school has students in the cultural mix. Most have students who speak an array of languages - many a dozen or more. Students at King High and Tampa Palms Elementary speak more than three dozen languages. The numbers reflect a national trend. The focus has shifted from immigrants as a problem to immigrants as a resource, said Joy Kreeft Peyton, vice president of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics. "After Sept. 11, 2001, national security started to say, 'There are languages we need to know,'" Peyton said. "It is important for defense and commerce. These are big." The importance of recognizing other languages and cultures is to affect "the way we view the world," she said. "To make the invisible visible ... enriches us." Some bilingual and trilingual students were born in the United States and picked up their families' native languages at home, but many arrive in this country with few, if any, English skills. That made going to American schools difficult at first for Mohammed Hussein, a 17-year-old King High senior born in Jordan. He has been in the United States nearly five years but speaks mainly Arabic or Egyptian while working at his cousin's Green Land Middle Eastern restaurant near Temple Terrace. "It was hard," he said. Hussein said he got into fights early in his American education, when he was misunderstood, but that stopped when he became more proficient in English. He is learning Spanish from friends and television. He hopes to learn Spanish more quickly by living in the Dominican Republic for a year. "I love Spanish," he said. "My grandmother is from Cuba. I love the language." Students who speak very little English usually go through a "silent period," teachers said. They listen and won't speak until they are sure of their words, which can be isolating. But many students describe being bilingual as "cool." "Other people want to learn your language, too, because it sounds so cool," said Kimoanh Nguyen, 18, a Riverview High senior who was born in California and learned Vietnamese from his family. Principals, teachers and students see the change in perception. "All of the children are very curious about Chinese," said Kimberly Kennan, principal of Tampa Palms Elementary. "They see the symbols on their computer games." Many children at Tampa Palms are from other countries and living in the Bay area while their parents attend the University of South Florida, Keenan said. "It's amazing how they're able to retain their first language and culture," she said. "After their parents finish their education, many of them leave and go back to their country speaking English." The school benefits from the students' international culture, Kennan said. "They add such a depth of experience. It teaches children lessons that aren't measured on the FCAT." No one is certain how many Hillsborough students retain their native languages after they enroll in school and learn to speak English. But educators say those who enrolled in kindergarten and speak English through high school are likely to forget their native language unless parents make an extraordinary effort. Such efforts have helped 9-year-old Spriha Shrestha remain adept at speaking Nepali. No one else at Dunbar Elementary Magnet School speaks the language, but she uses it daily with her relatives. "Most of my class thinks it's cool that I am speaking this language," Spriha said. "They don't know anyone from Nepal." Mandira Shrestha wants her daughter to also learn Newari, an ancient language still spoken in parts of Nepal that her family also speaks. Rosario said she thinks Hillsborough schools don't know the total number of students who speak native languages at home because not all parents report it when they register kids for school. Teachers and administrators also don't always know which students are bilingual. "A lot of times I just stumble upon these kids as they come in the front door with their parents and they interpret for the parents," said Kathy Flanagan, principal at Smith Middle School near Citrus Park. Smith students speak 15 languages other than English, a typical number for Hillsborough schools. Students and adults often assume those who appear Asian or Hispanic speak Chinese or Spanish. That's not always true. Katrine Hsiung speaks Indonesian, but her sons James, 13, and William, 14, speak only English. Their father, Edwin, is of Chinese descent but was born in the United States and speaks only English. The boys were born in Tampa and spoke Indonesian at home with their mother and grandmother until they were in preschool. Once the boys were in school, they did not want to respond in Indonesian anymore, Hsiung said. She regrets not encouraging the boys to speak Indonesian so they would "at least have more than one language. It's just knowledge." James attends Smith and will travel to Indonesia this summer, hoping to pick up the language again. "It's a good way to keep my own culture," he said. William, who attends Hillsborough High's International Baccalaureate program, has friends who speak other languages and wishes he did, too. "I would love to have that back," he said. Of the 20 most popular languages used by Hillsborough students at home, six are spoken in India. Kireet Agrawal, 12, attends Williams Middle Magnet school and speaks English fluently. He came to the United States from India with his parents when he was 4 months old. His father, Manish, who speaks four languages, required Kireet to speak Hindi at home. "It's better to speak more languages," said his mother, Aradhana Agrawal. "The way the world is today going, you never know where a child's future is going to be."
Reporter Marilyn Brown can be reached at (813) 259-8069.