Fatoumata Waggeh, 25, is planning to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia next year with hopes of going into public interest law. But right now, Waggeh has a different public interest mission: helping African immigrants in New York City become bilingual.
Waggeh joined City Councilmembers Mark Levine (D-7th District) and Rafael Espinal (D-37th District), outside City Hall on Tuesday to urge the City Council to support Resolution 890, which calls on the state legislature to pass pending legislation that would expand foreign language instruction in New York public schools.
Levine, a member of the City Council’s committee on education, sponsored the resolution last year. He wants to increase the number of elementary students in language immersion programs from three percent to 20 percent and the number of languages available for immersion from 10 to 20, with emphasis on the languages in highest demand by employers. Additionally, teachers who return to school and receive a secondary education in a foreign language would receive a financial bonus, Levine said.
“We don’t have enough teachers who are trained to teach these languages to our students,” said Council Member Levine at the press conference. “Knowledge of foreign languages is an essential part of succeeding in the 21st century. Being able to know a foreign language opens up so many opportunities for our students in a multicultural and multilingual city.” According to Levine, these languages include Spanish, Arabic, French, and Japanese.
Waggeh understands the value of having language skills. Born, raised and still living in the Bronx, she is an education advocate and community organizer for African Communities Together (ACT), a Harlem-based nonprofit that works with African immigrants.
As the daughter of immigrants from Namibia, Waggeh wants to use her language and educational skills to help African immigrants. She learned Soninke at home and Japanese in high school at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. At New York University, she learned Swahili.
“Having the opportunity in school to learn multiple languages helped me get to where I am today,” said Waggeh in an interview after the press conference. “That experience has inspired me to give back and help those who haven’t had the same opportunities to succeed.”
Waggeh believes that understanding English and other world languages can be the difference between living the American Dream and living in poverty.
“The language barrier for many immigrants makes it harder for them to find a place to live and work,” said Waggeh. “Being able to speak English, Spanish or other languages is so important for immigrants to integrate socially in New York City. And it gives children in our public schools the opportunity to discover a wide array of world languages and cultures.”
Levine wants to see those opportunities expand. City schools currently offer more than 180 dual language programs, he said. But while roughly half of New York City’s households speak a language other than English, these dual language programs only reach a small number of elementary school students, he said. They also face a shortage of teachers, he said.
Resolution 890 is currently under consideration by the City Council committee on education.