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Jilly Sher is a 2023 Bowdoin College graduate, with a major in Francophone studies and a minor in education. She taught French at Kate Furbish Elementary in Brunswick this year through Multilingual Mainers and has volunteered at other schools. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the college. Her column appears as a collaboration with the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the Bangor Daily every other week.

“It finally makes sense!” exclaimed a local high school student during his Friday study hall. He was speaking in French. On his desk sat an algebra worksheet with math problems written in English. As a volunteer, I had just explained in French how to plot points on a coordinate plane and calculate slope. Because his English is limited, he struggles in math. After I translated the concepts into his home language, however, he couldn’t believe how easy they were.

New Mainer students have a right to access their intelligence. We must remove obstacles so that these bright students have an opportunity to succeed.

This student is just one example of the many multilingual students in Maine’s public schools. Just this year, over 1,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland. Many of these New Mainers, like my student, speak languages like Portuguese, French, Somali and Lingala and have little to no experience speaking English. As children and teenagers from these families are thrown into classes taught in English, they fall behind.

Many nonprofit organizations do substantial work helping New Mainers adjust to life and language here. The Immigrant Welcome Center provides online English instruction for incoming families; Portland Public Schools offer Make It Happen!, a program to help multilingual students prepare for college. Many of these programs primarily offer English-language instruction, which is materially helpful for New Mainers as they adapt to life in this state. However, it is not enough.

Research on second-language learning tells us that cutting students off from their home languages not only slows their development in those languages but also inflicts significant  psychological and social damage. To welcome students’ cultural and linguistic identities into the classroom, schools should engage with the languages students speak at home and promote second language learning for all students. Not only would this ensure that multilingual students have the same opportunity to thrive academically as their English-speaking peers, but it would also help them maintain proficiency in home languages and stay connected to their families and cultures. When home languages are spoken and represented in school, students thrive.

Unfortunately, most New Mainer students are isolated from their languages and cultures in school. To address this problem, multilingual mentors can provide a huge role, as has been my experience in the Multilingual Mainers at Kate Furbish Elementary in Brunswick. Volunteers and hired language liaisons would work directly with students by providing cultural affirmation, translation and academic coaching. With respect, humility, and exchange, Maine’s public schools can serve these students justly.

People in Maine who speak any languages other than English might be able to help New Mainer students encounter more life-changing “aha!” moments. So they should reach out to their local public schools to volunteer. If someone doesn’t speak any languages other than English, or if they’re a college student like me, they should consider learning a second language. Becoming multilingual could help someone serve their community. Many sources show that learning new languages like French opens the door to all kinds of personal opportunities and connections, too.

Administrators in Maine’s public schools could hire multilingual language liaisons. With multilingual staff members, schools can make learning more accessible to New Mainers whose first languages are not English. Finally, if people have the means, they should support and donate to the organizations listed above that help New Mainers adjust to this new linguistic and cultural environment. Together, we can make Maine feel like home.