Professor Juan Madrid with his students from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at a radio telescope in Fort Davis in West Texas.

'Embrace the culture, embrace the language': Offering bilingual courses benefits students beyond the classroom, Texan professor says

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is classified as a Hispanic-serving institution where some bilingual courses are offered. The World's host Marco Werman speaks with astronomy professor Juan Madrid about teaching his classes in both Spanish and English and what it means for the students.

The World

Only a few universities and colleges offer core classes in languages other than English. But at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), bilingual professors can teach in Spanish, or in both English and Spanish. 

UTRGV is classified as a Hispanic-serving institution, which means more than 25% of the students identify as such. Right on the US-Mexico border, over 90% of the student body identifies as either Hispanic or Latino, according to Hispanic Outlook on Education Magazine.

The World's host Marco Werman spoke to UTRGV professor Juan Madrid, who teaches astronomy in both Spanish and English.

While Madrid said it isn't difficult to offer bilingual classes, the challenge is finding professors qualified to teach them, as few Hispanics get advanced degrees.

Marco Werman: When you're in the classroom at UT Rio Grande Valley and you’re teaching astronomy, what language do you use for instruction?
Juan Madrid: I'm using both English and Spanish. So, I'm teaching a bilingual class in astronomy.
Take us into the classroom. How does teaching in both English and Spanish actually work? Like are you conscious of when you're going to switch between the two?
Not really, it's not a big effort to do that because I'm naturally bilingual. I grew up speaking English and Spanish. And so, the same is true for my students. The vast majority of the students at our university are bilingual, so they speak both English and Spanish. So no, I don't think too much when I'm switching between English or Spanish at all, actually.
Juan Madrid is an astronomy professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and teaches in both English and Spanish.

Juan Madrid is an astronomy professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and teaches in both English and Spanish.


Courtesy of Mark Graham

And I'm wondering if there are any challenges you run into when you're using Spanish interchangeably with English in a classroom setting?
I don't really see any big challenges to teaching a bilingual class. Here in South Texas, everybody here is bilingual, or most people here bilingual. When we do all our business, we’re bilingual. So, perhaps the one exception is our university classes, where the vast majority of classes are in English. So, this is what we're trying to change.
Right, so it's available when you have a professor like yourself who is fluent in both languages, but for the most part and other departments, you're saying, that's not the case?
No, there is still a lot of work for us to do in that respect. As you said, you need to find those professors who are bilingual. If I can bring a point here, to be a university professor, you normally need a PhD in your field. And one of the biggest issues in science is the fact that very few Hispanics actually go into science and go into advanced degrees in science.
Yeah, I mean, it's certainly the case that some of your students will go on to get master's degrees and postgraduate degrees. What do you say to critics who say using Spanish in the classroom, that these kids will be less well-prepared?
No, that's absolutely not true. Actually, being bilingual and being able to be fluent in Spanish, actually, is a requirement for many jobs these days. Certainly, for many jobs here in South Texas, Mexico is the biggest trading partner of the state of Texas.
So, why have you chosen to teach in both languages?
I have chosen to teach bilingual classes to make students feel welcome in the classroom. And I just don't want students feeling that they have to do this code-switching into this different persona that only speaks English, when they speak Spanish at home, when they're bilingual at home, when they go to the grocery store and they speak Spanish and English. I want them to feel that the university is part of their lives.
Your school is classified as a Hispanic-serving institution, which means more than 25% of the students identify as Hispanic. You wrote an article last year where you compare those institutions to historically Black colleges and universities, HBCUs. And you wrote that those schools were doing it right, but that Hispanic-serving universities were missing the mark. Explain that.
Yeah, that's absolutely true, Marco. Historically Black colleges and universities have this big pride in serving the Black community. That is somewhat missing for Hispanic-serving institutions. So, for me, the solution to this is basically to embrace the culture, to embrace the language of our Hispanic students.
Yes, so just finally, what needs to happen, do you think, to more deeply embrace that culture and duplicate what you're doing in the department of astronomy?
Well, look, we need more professors who are able to teach bilingual classes. If we have more bilingual professors, I think more bilingual classes will be able to be offered. The university administration also recognises the importance of offering bilingual classes here in South Texas. Even the Texas legislature has recognized that, and one of the objectives of our university is to become fully bilingual. As we hire more professors who are able to teach my bilingual classes, those classes will be offered for sure.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: Catalan separatists want university classes taught in the local language. Spanish academics resist the change.

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