Spotlight Interview: Bilingual Parent, Alejandra Hamlet
About Alejandra Hamlet: Alejandra is a bilingual professional and mother raising three bilingual children. An immigrant with roots in Mexico and Venezuela, Alejandra moved to the United States to pursue an MBA. After completing her MBA, Alejandra began her career in the US. Though she grew up bilingual, Alejandra’s new life in the US brought about a new bilingual journey full of discoveries. Over the past 12 years, Alejandra started over a dozen “English as a Second Language” (ESL) programs through the Catholic Diocese to help the Spanish speaking parents in the community. She has also successfully raised her own three children to be fully bilingual and biliterate in English and Spanish in a dominant English society. Her dedication to the importance of bilingualism and her understanding of not only the possibilities but also the opportunities that await has made her a champion of empowering others through language and understanding.
How did you grow up to be bilingual?
I was born in Venezuela, but right before my first year, my parents moved back to Mexico. In Mexico, I went to bilingual schools from preschool through college. All through primary and secondary, I took Math, Science, Social Studies and Language Arts in Spanish and English. In college, most of my business classes were taught in Spanish, but our textbooks were in English. In order to have a shot at a good career in Mexico you MUST be proficient in English. I pursued my MBA at Illinois State University, just a year after graduating from college.
You have raised three children to be bilingual. What have been the biggest challenges you and your children have had to work through to be where you are today bilingually?
I was lucky to have preschool teachers that were bilingual themselves, or patient with my children’s code switching. I am aware this is not the case for most. My biggest challenge in school has been that their small private school didn’t have great Spanish teachers until recently. The new Spanish teacher honors the multilevel class that he has and creates special work for Spanish speakers.
In terms of Austin, the biggest challenge is to not have activities in the city that are in Spanish. Not even the Mexican American Cultural Center offers Spanish only programs.
From your personal experience, how could schools better help support families like yours who are raising children to be bilingual?
Hiring qualified second language teachers; not teachers who are somewhat familiar with the language.
You have launched many ESL programs throughout Austin through the Catholic Diocese over the past 12 years. Can you tell us more about these ESL programs?
These programs were focused on supporting the parents of kids in religious educational programs, but were not limited to them. While the students were attending RE, the parents could take English classes once or twice per week. We were able to successfully reduce two of the largest barriers for adults learners, transportation and child care. The programs were not free, because we wanted the parents to be invested. The annual program would only cost the price of the book. I had an agreement with [the publishing company], Pearson Longman, to provide free training and teacher guides to our volunteers. They gave us the workbooks for free, so the cost per student was under $35 per year.
What are some of the direct benefits you have seen when migrant families also learned English?
When parents don’t speak the language of the country they live in, they have to depend on their children. These children become the owners of the information (from teachers, doctors, utilities, etc.). This causes the balance of power to be upside down. In my experience, as parents started learning the language, they became more engaged in the kids’ school. Their involvement increases the probabilities of the students to stay in school. I have seen amazing transformations in families over the years, the children become proud of their parents and start respecting. It is truly a beautiful thing!
Have these programs succeeded in bridging diverse communities?
Yes, indeed, the fear between communities dissipates and collaboration begins. The volunteers are the most transformed in this process.