California high school students appear to be putting to rest this common adage: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

Buenas noticias, or good news, coming out of Sacramento this month is that more high school students graduated with a State Seal of Biliteracy in 2015 than ever before, according to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

What, you've never heard of the State Seal of Biliteracy? Neither did I until recently.

This is a program that recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing in one or more language in addition to English. Even better, the program includes American Sign Language.

Students must complete certain coursework, pass high-level exams and get good grades to earn the seal, which is affixed to their diplomas. No surprise that California, with its huge number of immigrants and untold number of languages spoken by students, was first in the nation to create the program in 2012.

It has has since been copied in Washington, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, New York, Hawaii and Washington, D.C.

And glad to learn it's been implemented in several school districts here in Kern County.

"Most of our students who have obtained the seal go on to college," said Adelaida Ramos, executive director of educational services at Delano Joint Union High School District.

One example is 22-year-old Octavio Viramontes, who grew up in Earlimart and graduated from Delano High. Viramontes was 11 years old when his family settled in the area, arriving from Zacatecas, Mexico.

Not knowing English at the time was a challenge as other students sometimes made fun of him about it, Viramontes said. So he learned English, yet retained his first language. 

"At that time I didn't realize how important it was to speak and understand two languages," said Viramontes. "It's been a blessing."

He is quick to give credit to his parents for ensuring he and his siblings did not lose their ability to read and speak Spanish. Unfortunately, losing one's ability to speak, read and write one's native language happens all too often for a variety of reasons. While many in Kern County may be raised speaking Spanish, Tagolog or whatever, reading and writing that language effectively is another matter. It takes a conscious effort to be biliterate, not just bilingual.

Today, Viramontes is in his first year at Harvard Medical School after having obtained his bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from Harvard. He wants to become a cardiologist. He is already seeing patients at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where his bilingual skills come in handy when communicating with patients.

According to the California Department of Education, more than 31,000 public high school students earned the gold seal for achieving proficiency in multiple languages. That's nearly three times the number reported in 2012.

Not surprisingly, 67 percent were for Spanish, followed by 9 percent for French, 5 percent for Mandarin, 2 percent for German and smaller numbers for Japanese, Latin, Korean, Vietnamese and Cantonese.

The Kern High School District has also seen a dramatic increase, with 284 students earning the gold seal in 2014 and 492 in 2015. The district immediately jumped on board with the program in 2012 when a group of parents urged the district to do so, said Vickie Spanos, KHSD director of instruction.

"We are championing the idea of being bilingual," said Spanos.

The schools with the highest number of students graduating in 2015 with the Seal of Biliteracy were Foothhill (65), Liberty (58) and Stockdale (49). While all seals were awarded mostly for Spanish and a few in French, no seals have yet been awarded to students in American Sign Language in Kern County.

So what good is a State Seal of Biliteracy? While it might not get you a job as a translator at the United Nations right away, being bilingual can give a job applicant a leg up in today's competitive global job market.

I can tell you I landed a job at Eyewitness News 27 years ago because all things being equal with my competitors, I later learned, I was the only applicant with bilingual skills. And in Kern County, that's a big plus.

Being bilingual literally pays off as well. Some county jobs pay up to $50 more per pay period if the employee is certified bilingual, said Kern County Employee Relations Officer Devin Brown.

"Bilingual candidates have an advantage in Kern County," said Danette Scarry, marketing supervisor with America's Job Center. "Jobs in the medical field, banking, title companies and agricultural-related positions are places that need bilingual people."

Scarry said that besides a potential financial benefit, perhaps the biggest advantage to being bilingual is getting a first foot in the door for a job.

It's great to see schools empowering students by encouraging bilingualism. Viramontes appreciates it for a reason besides better job opportunities.

"It gives people the opportunity to appreciate different cultures," he said.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own. 

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