Dual Language expert, Dr. Olga Grimalt, on her passion for language
By Maritere R. Bellas
“For me, as both a writer and an educator, it’s always about language. I love language: spoken and written,” Dr. Olga Grimalt
When I first met Olga Grimalt over thirty years ago, we became instant friends. Though years younger than me, we had an immediate connection: her mom is from the same hometown I grew up with in Puerto Rico, and we both understood the value of being bilingual. I knew then that our lives would always be connected and even though there were years of no communication, kids, work, life, our paths would cross again and again. We even ended up having friends in common and they would reconnect us time and again. Interestingly enough, through language. At the time we met, Olga had finished her degree in Creative Writing and had just started writing her first novel. But she was always interested in languages and by happenstance, she ended up teaching English and Spanish. This was the early nineties. Her love of languages started way before. Since always.
“I was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My father is from Mallorca, Spain and my mother from Ponce, Puerto Rico. They met and married in Bridgeport. When I was a year old, we moved to a neighboring town, Stratford. Although I was born in Bridgeport, I grew up in Stratford. I mention this because there was a larger Hispanic community in Bridgeport. Stratford was more White Anglo-Saxon than Hispanic.”
The language in Olga’s home was Spanish. Both of her parents were bilingual but they spoke Spanish to each other and to their four children. There were no rules about language use in the home, the language at home was Spanish…that was it. “As I grew up, my siblings and I began to speak English to each other but continued to speak Spanish to our parents.”
Olga attended English-only programs at school. She truly believes the reason she and her siblings speak Spanish as fluently as they do is largely because they spent every summer in Mallorca. “Although my family in Mallorca speaks Mallorquín (a dialect of Catalán), they communicated with us in Spanish. Being immersed in Spanish for several weeks a year solidified our fluency. Other children we grew up, now as adults, understand Spanish but do not speak it well.”
Growing up both Spanish and Puerto Rican heritage were evident in Olga’s house. Most of her parent’s friends were Cuban, so she actually grew up with three cultures: Spanish, Puerto Rican and Cuban. Every summer, the family traveled to Spain, and her family from Puerto Rico would visit them in Connecticut. I’ve traveled to Puerto Rico more often as an adult than as a child. “What’s interesting about my upbringing is that in my home we were Hispanic all the way including the plastic covers on our living room furniture. But outside our home, the community was very White Anglo-Saxon with some Italian-American sprinkled in. I was usually the only Spanish speaking child in school.”
When Olga became a mother, there was no question about raising her children bilingual and bicultural. She has two daughters who are now 16 and 17 years old. To her, raising bilingual daughters was non-negotiable. She connects strongly with her Mallorquín side, which includes Spanish and Catalán, and her Puerto Rican side. It was very important for her that her daughters communicated and connected with her family and heritage.
To that end, Olga’s daughters have participated in Long Beach Unified School District’s dual immersion program since kindergarten. Currently her oldest daughter, Carolina, is a senior and her youngest, Paula is a sophomore. They both attend the dual immersion high school program.
“I was the coordinator of the elementary dual immersion program when Carolina began kindergarten. I enrolled them in that school not only because I wanted them to maintain their Spanish, but also because I wanted them to be able to develop academic language in Spanish as well.”
Olga became a bilingual teacher in 1990. Her first teaching assignment was in a transitional bilingual program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In that program, she taught students who were Latino English learners in both Spanish and English. At that time, the need for bilingual teachers was so great that the State of California was issuing Emergency Credentials to meet the needs in the field. During her first two years of teaching, she taught during the day and went to school in the evening.
“On that first day, in September 1990, I fell in love. I fell in love with my class, with their families, and with the knowledge that I was a small part in keeping their language and culture alive. I, too, was an English learner when I began to attend school in Connecticut but school was not a place that valued my first language nor my culture. As a new teacher, I found myself being inspired to ensure that my students understood the value of their first language and their culture. More than 25 years later, this still inspires me to continue the work that I’m doing now”.
Nine years later, in 1999, Olga became a dual immersion teacher. In this program, she had students who were both learning English as a second language and students who were learning Spanish as a second language. In this setting, she understood the importance of bringing children of different cultures together in learning two languages.
“I became a dual immersion teacher on the heels of Proposition 227. The atmosphere around bilingual education was negative and tense so I was grateful that I was able to continue to teach in Spanish and English and loved the cultural diversity in my classroom and the fact that we were all working towards one goal: to become bilingual, biliterate.”
Olga was a faculty member at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA for eight years. She began as the Assistant Director of Bilingual Programs, and later became the Director of Bilingual Programs. Running the bilingual programs at LMU, along with teaching bilingual teacher candidates, led her to consulting. “I began to provide technical assistance to the dual immersion programs that were being launched in the LA Archdiocese and later began to work with public schools. In 2016, I left LMU and began consulting full-time.”
Her company, Multilingual Learning Network, started in the fall of 2016. “In California, dual language programs have consistently grown in the last few years and will continue to grow now that Proposition 58 passed in 2016, positioning our state and education system as one that embraces dual and multilingual development from a young age,” she said.
Multilingual Learning Network currently provides technical support for dual language programs that are in the planning phase of launching a dual language program OR dual language programs that are in existence and need technical support. They provide a number of services to meet the needs of school sites implementing a dual language program.
“I’m currently working with a select group of teachers in designing an online component to Multilingual Learning Network. Teachers work in isolation, and I’m exploring ways to create an online network for dual language teachers across the nation.”
Olga believes that the biggest need for dual language programs is more certified, qualified bilingual teachers. Also, continued professional development on developing bilingualism and bilteracy. Bilingual teacher candidates go through a teacher preparation program at a university but they need continued professional development once they are out in the field. In her experience, there needs to be further opportunities to continue to develop effective ways of teaching in two languages. “Our school districts don’t always provide specialized professional development on teaching in two languages. There is a great need to provide more opportunities for bilingual teachers. Dual language conferences provide that, but there needs to be more support at the district and school level.” And she believes that since typically teachers work in isolation, developing a community of dual language teachers is a great way to network with other teachers and schools.
In Olga’s opinion, parents play a big role in the success of dual language programs and need to be informed of the benefits on an ongoing basis. Parent presentations are important. “Ultimately my goal is to model for the school and district how to address parents so that they can continue doing so when I’m not there. I also work with schools in developing further opportunities for parents to be informed and involved in their dual language program such as organizing a parent night that celebrates language.
When asked if bilingual programs have benefitted her children, she answered with a resounding “Absolutely! My daughters would not have the degree of fluency that they have in Spanish if it were not for the dual immersion program. English is the dominant language in our society and children know from a very young age that English is the language that holds a higher status in our communities. I knew that a dual immersion program was the only option if I wanted my girls to maintain and continue to develop fluency in Spanish, even if I spoke Spanish at home.”
In Olga’s opinion, bilingualism and biliteracy should be available to all children because the strength of the dual immersion model is that all are welcome and that children of different ethnicities are becoming bilingual together. “This is very powerful not only for our school system but for our society as a whole.”