Linguistic Biography Diana Scalera

I am the daughter of Italian heritage speakers. In our home, my mother and grandmother spoke in Italian to each other. My father understood Italian, but his family’s dialect was different from the one my mother and grandmother spoke therefore he mostly communicated with them in English. My parents decided that their children should not speak Italian because both of them had traumatizing experiences as students entering American schools not speaking English. For this reason, brothers and I were strongly discouraged from speaking Italian. My grandmother, who spoke very halting English, was also discouraged from speaking to us in Italian. My parents believed that this would give us an advantage in school.

When I went to high school, I studied French. I found that I could easily understand my teacher when she spoke in French because I could make connections to Italian and English cognates. I was also used to hearing a language that I didn’t understand fully. My first year, I had a talented teacher and loved the class. My second year, the teacher had us act out Moliere, which none of us understood. I dropped any attempt to learn language in school after that.

When I was in my twenties, I became interested in what was happening in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States was involved in suppressing revolutionary movements in these countries at the time. There were many interesting cultural, social and political events that I attended. I decided to go to Nicaragua to learn Spanish. My stay lasted 3 months. After that, I went to Spain for another year. When I came back to the US, I decided I wanted to be a Spanish teacher and went to college to get my degree in Spanish Education. At that time, I took mostly literature courses.

When I first started teaching, two thirds of my students were heritage speakers of Spanish. It was very challenging for many reasons. First, I did not have the proficiency level necessary for this kind of instruction. Second, there were no materials or pedagogical models to follow and, finally, the students were not sure why they should be in a Spanish class. I spent thirteen years working with this population, improving my Spanish and building programs that included Chinese, Polish and Russian heritage students. I have been developing resources to help other teachers work with heritage students. I was one of the authors of Teaching Heritage Learners: Voices from the Classroom and the director and writer of the documentary film I Speak Arabic. I spent three years as the Assistant Media Coordinator of Region 5 in New York City creating media for staff development in all subject areas. Currently, I work for the Integrated Curriculum and Instruction Learning Support Organization of the New York City Department of Education as an ESL/Technology Network Support Specialist.

I believe that the languages that surround us as we are growing up are our birthright and they need to be encouraged and supported instead of suppressed. If we force people to be cut off from these languages, we force them to be cut off from important parts of themselves. I still long to hear my grandmother speak to me with the confidence and ease that one might have in one’s native language. Learning Spanish has given me back some of my Italian and French but I will never have the near native abilities I might have had if Italian had been part of my linguistic competence as a young child.