Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families # 6: Language and Dialect Issues

By Janine M. Schall and Luz Murillo

This is the sixth post in a series that shares results from a year-long research project exploring family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. This research was funded by the UTPA C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship.

Celebrating a wedding anniversary with a love note from a wife to her husband


The ability to speak more than one language is not particularly valued in the United States, especially when a person’s first language is something other than English. And when someone doesn’t speak English at all, many people, including many educators, assume that a lack of English means a lack of intelligence, education, and desire to learn English. Parents who can’t speak English well are assumed to care less about their children’s education and to be less able to help support their children’s learning. These beliefs are, of course, erroneous. The Spanish-speaking families we interviewed as part of this research showed us that they believed bilingualism was an asset for their children. The families wanted their children to be literate in their home language of Spanish, but knew that literacy in Standard English was important for success in the United States. Families discussed a variety of issues related to language, including:

  • Reading bilingual books with their children
  • Parental ability to speak English
  • Parental struggles with learning to read and write in English
  • English only schooling making it more difficult for children to be literate in Spanish
  • Helping with homework in both languages
  • Children translating English into Spanish for their parents
  • The differences between “Standard Spanish”, “Standard English”, and Tex-Mex

 Mrs. Puente discussed pursuing her own education as a way to motivate her children:

 “Quiero seguir estudiando [por el GED], porque de esta manera yo estoy viendo y estoy motivando a mis hijos. Más que nada a mi hija. Yo la veo como trae mucha tarea. Yo le digo, mija pues yo no sé mucho inglés, pero lo poco que yo sepa yo te ayudo aunque sea a leer en inglés, verdad, y yo se que…y ella me dice ‘ay mami, es que a veces se me hace tan difícil, pero yo misma también me doy valor,’ dice. [I want to continue studying for the GED, because this way I am seeing and motivating my children. Mostly my daughter. I see that she has a lot of homework. I tell her, Mija, I don’t know much English, but I’ll use the little I know to help you although it’s in English, you know, and what do I know…and she tells me ‘ay, Mami, sometimes it seems so difficult but I push myself to keep going.’”] Sra. Puente

 Although Mrs. Puente wasn’t confident with her own English, she was determined to help her children pursue their English-language education. She saw her own studies for the GED exam as a way to show her children that education mattered.

 Mr. Morales shared his initial reactions to hearing Tex-Mex after he moved to the Rio Grande Valley:

 “La primera vez que vine al Valle fue a una quinceañera y se me hizo raro de que el padre aquí en la parroquia de San Martin ofreció el sermón en tex-mex y yo me quedé, ¿Qué? ¿Que es una misa bilingüe? Pero este ya aprendí que así es como se comunican aquí, nosotros. [The first time that I came to the Valley was for a quinceañera and it seemed strange to me that the priest in the San Martin parish gave the sermon in Tex-Mex, and I was like, what? Is this a bilingual mass? But soon I learned that that’s how we communicate here.]

 Mr. Morales and his family moved to the Valley from California and noted the different dialect of Spanish spoken in this area.

What does this mean for teachers and schools? The families saw literacy in more than one language as a strength and supported their children’s learning of both English and Spanish. Educators need to recognize that these families have a great deal of linguistic knowledge and awareness. That knowledge needs to be celebrated and used as a resource for language learning in school.


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