A Hidden Language: Supporting Students Who Speak Mixtec

Woman talking with kids on a playground.

Katrina Kickbush and Anna Kirkness are teachers at Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD, a community school where ELLs are 76% of the student population. Katrina teaches special education and Anna is an ESOL specialist. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, they describe the discovery process the school went through after noticing an unusual increase in special education referrals. That process revealed that many families that the school thought were dominant Spanish speakers actually spoke Mixtec, an indigenous language from Mexico. 

Katrina and Anna talk about what they learned about the language and how shining a spotlight on it led to positive changes for families, students, and staff at the school.

Video bonus: See our related videos with Katrina and Principal Mark Gaither below!

Seven years ago, we walked into Wolfe Street Academy, a school with an 83% Latino population in Baltimore. We were impressed by the overwhelming levels of support for what seemed like a very homogeneous student body of Spanish-speaking families. As an ESOL teacher (Anna Kirkness) and as a Special Education teacher (Katrina Kickbush), it was welcoming to see the morning assembly each day in English and Spanish, a bilingual secretary, Spanish correspondence, and Spanish interpreters for special education testing and parent conferences. We both thought, “This is a school that understands the importance of knowing its families, addressing their needs and celebrating their strengths.”

A Language Puzzle

Several months into our tenure at Wolfe, we began to suspect that our Latino population, which we originally thought was simply Spanish-speaking, was linguistically more complex. A Kindergarten teacher who was fluent in Spanish said to us one day, “One of my students must be using a dialect of Spanish. I don’t know the words they’re using, nor do they understand me in Spanish.” Then, a few ESOL teachers working in the early childhood grades raised concerns that several of their students seemed to have speech pronunciation patterns that didn’t match those of their Spanish-speaking ESOL counterparts. Even in the upper grades, several teachers had approached our Community School Site Coordinator, Connie Phelps Bozek, to ask for her guidance with some students who had similar speech and articulation patterns.


See more from Wolfe Street!

 To learn more about how Wolfe Street serves its ELLs through the community school model, take a look at this related video!

These conversations regarding puzzling performance and unexpected student responses to intervention sparked our interest in the possibility of a common underlying reason uniting these concerns.The final tipping point was when the Special Education team created a document to analyze specific caseload numbers. The team noticed that a significant number of these same students had been identified as having a speech and language disability. It seemed nearly impossible, or at least highly improbable, that this could happen by coincidence. This was one more clue, and it was time to bring our full team together.

We brought together the teachers and staff who had some experience with these students and could potentially provide guidance with this complex issue.This was the first time all the different parties (ESOL, Special Education, Community School Coordinator and Principal) sat together in real-time to share and consider all the information we had regarding this group of students.

It was at this meeting that Mrs. Bozek, our Community School Site Coordinator, mentioned she knew that a family at Wolfe spoke Mixteco, an indigenous language that families referred to as a “dialect.” She went on to explain that historically in Mexico this language population had been marginalized and the effects last to this day. Several families had expressed shame or a feeling of inferiority when approached about using this language at home or in front of the Spanish-speaking community. This revealed why it had taken so much time to uncover this language in our community and indicated that we needed to move forward with a high level of sensitivity, acceptance and awareness.

Learning About Mixtec

After this initial meeting with our colleagues, we immediately began researching the Mixtec language and discovered many interesting facts:

  • Mixtec is an ancient language, unrelated to Spanish, dating back to pre-Columbian times.
  • There are anywhere from 30-50 variations of the language, some differing greatly from each other.
  • Mixtec is mainly spoken in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, a very mountainous and isolated area.
  • It is one of eight branches in the Otomanguean language family.
  • It has a Verb-Subject-Object (VSO) structure, which is a structure that accounts for only 9% of world’s languages.
  • Mixtec is a tonal language partially relying, like Chinese, on how a word is pronounced to convey meaning.
  • It uses repetition of words to take on different meanings (for emphasis, repeating 'slow slow' to mean 'very slow').
  • It does not have a past or perfect tense.
  • It is an analytic language that conveys meaning through free instead of bound morphemes.

Building Upon What We Learned

After discovering more about Mixtec, we took several steps to address the specific needs of this population. The school administration fully supported our search for the best ways we could use this new information to plan interventions and specific strategies in support of these students. We provided Wolfe Street Academy staff with basic professional development regarding the Mixtec language (features, culture, history, and geographic location), as well as ESOL strategies for addressing our Mixtec speakers’ specific needs in the classroom as trilingual (English, Spanish, Mixtec) learners.

We also adjusted our procedures and routines in other areas of the school based on our new learning.  If a student was referred to the Student Support Team for struggling to meet academic requirements, we began asking parents if another language (or ‘dialecto’) was spoken at home.  We had realized this was an essential piece of information that we had been missing.

Parents began responding that indeed one parent spoke exclusively in Mixtec to their child, even if the other spoke Spanish. In other cases, a caregiver such as a grandparent spoke Mixtec to the child, while the parents spoke Spanish. We found this information invaluable as it helped explain more about the child’s language background and development over time, key factors linked to the child’s academic performance.  With all of this information we were able to provide more time and strategic planned interventions with the support of special education and ESOL teachers in the primary classroom. 

A few months later, we hosted a parent gathering for families that speak an indigenous dialect.  We had gathered information from our own staff and from the research, we sought to find out more firsthand information about the personal journeys and experiences of our families and their first language, their “L1.” We also used this time to share information with our families on the importance of building a strong L1 in establishing strong skills in second (L2) and third languages (L3).  Included in these gatherings were strategies our families could use at home to build oral vocabulary strength in Mixtec.

As a result of this family gathering and continued conversations with our Mixtec speakers, we noticed a positive impact on the school’s climate and culture. A few parents came forward in talking about using Mixtec in the home and were much more open and comfortable sharing their rich language heritage and encouraging others to do so as well. We even had one parent offer to translate from Spanish to Mixtec at a school sponsored literacy night.  That was a huge turning point in our development.  Students also became more linguistically aware, and started becoming language leaders in their classrooms, sharing words and phrases in Mixtec with their peers and teachers.

Making Mixtec Part of Our School Culture

In the five years since we began delving into this topic of an indigenous language hidden within our Latino community, we have learned several important lessons. First and foremost, the ever-changing and dynamic nature of language lends itself to the fact that we can never assume that we completely understand the language landscape of a school community. Before we had shed light on this topic, we held to a set of assumptions about who we were and what our students were coming to school knowing.  This experience showed us the potentially narrow understanding those types of assumptions can carry.  The lasting effect of this is that we now better understand and continue to challenge ourselves to look beyond the general label of ‘ESOL student’ to obtain a greater understanding of the students’ family background, culture and language.   

We have also learned about the strength and resilience of our staff, our students and our families.  Faced with a puzzle, staff dug deep into their own lack of understanding together to discover answers; our families, seeing our commitment to understanding, gave us their trust and helped us understand their personal stories; and our students worked hard every day to do their very best.  Many of them, as they have grown older and have the gift of time to establish strong language skills, find themselves exiting our ESOL program all together.

More Work to Do on Behalf of Students

But we still have plenty of questions that remain unanswered.  We know there is always more work to be done. Most recently, it has come to our attention that several of the preschools in our community need professional development on the topic of identifying indigenous languages in their population. We have heard them question why “Spanish-speaking students are not speaking like their Spanish-speaking peers or are even nonverbal.”

When our staff looked further into the issue, we discovered it was simply that the family’s dominant language is Mixtec and the preschool staff was exactly where we were a few years ago - unaware of the language and this population. We also still seek to identify the best programs and interventions in reading, language and mathematics that will support our students’ unique language needs. And we still work to figure out how to best train our teachers to view this topic with the urgency that will allow them to make effective pedagogical changes to their instruction of these students.

We have only scratched the surface of producing a comprehensive toolkit for helping our struggling trilingual students.  But our goal remains constant.  It is our mission to close the achievement gap between our trilingual, bilingual and monolingual students.  As we approach any issue here at Wolfe Street Academy, together we will observe, assess and assist in a continuous cycle that will allow us to discover the “next best plan” for helping our students and their families succeed.  Persistence is the key.

Hear more about the discovery of Mixtec at Wolfe Street Academy from Principal Mark Gaither and special education teacher Katrina Kickbush.


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