Photo: Caitlin Cunningham


Maria Estela Brisk

Across a legendary half-century career, Brisk has earned her reputation as a leading expert on language and education, and an unapologetic warrior for the rights of America’s bilingual learners.

Professor Emerita Maria Estela Brisk has taught more students, trained more teachers, written more books, and testified in more desegregation lawsuits than can easily be kept track of. Across a legendary half-century career, including twenty-one years at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, Brisk has earned her reputation as a leading expert on language and education, and an unapologetic warrior for the rights of America’s bilingual learners. She “retired” from BC in 2020, but no one seems to have noticed, most likely because of the online courses she continues to teach, and because of the three books she’s written since then.

Sometimes leaving home helps you find your way. I was born in Argentina, the youngest of seven. Spanish was our native language but we learned English and French in my house. My mother didn’t think you could be educated unless you spoke several languages. I wanted to do my graduate work abroad, like all my brothers had done. So much to my mother’s dismay, I came to the States—at the time, it wasn’t a thing to do for a girl to go on her own to a different country. I enrolled at Georgetown. 

Mind the culture gap. I was ready to come home about ten minutes after getting to Georgetown. The culture shock was brutal. It was also difficult because even though I was fluent in English, no one had taught me to write in my second language. I cried the entire first semester. Then a friend said, “Stop crying. I’m going to teach you how to write a paper.” I ended up marrying the guy—I wasn’t letting him go! So I have always watched out for my foreign students. They’ve spent time at my house. I’ve signed leases for them. I’ve helped them get jobs. Because it’s very hard in the US, and it has nothing to do with language. It’s the cultural differences.

Children have the right to learn in their native language. When I first came to Boston [1974] is when I really started working in the field of bilingual education. I also became very involved in the politics of the issue. I was an expert witness representing a parents’ organization in a desegregation lawsuit in Boston. We got the judge to assign bilingual kids according to the schools that had personnel who spoke their language. I did similar work with parent groups in cities like Detroit, Hartford, and Wilmington, Delaware. The most satisfying thing I did in my testimony was tell the lawyers on the other side to shut up. They didn’t know what they were talking about, so they had to shut up and listen to me. And we got what we wanted. The parents know what’s good for their kids. But they can’t express it with fancy words and theories. So I could help them with that.

Take pride in who you are. I raised a daughter who’s fully bilingual and two granddaughters who are fully bilingual. They’re not just able to reserve a room in a hotel, they can argue politics. I made sure they were bilingual and that they were proud of it, because it’s very hard to raise kids with a Spanish heritage in this country. You’re put down all the time. There’s so much prejudice.

Master the written word. It’s hard when you’re writing professionally in your second language. It took me a long time to get my confidence. I didn’t publish my first book until I was almost sixty years old. Since then I have written eleven. But because nobody taught me, I became very interested in making sure that people teach bilingual kids how to write in both languages.

There’s a special reward in educating the educators. Over the past twenty years, I’ve been working a lot with teachers in Boston schools, teaching them writing theory and how we can apply it to the classroom. And I find that to be the most rewarding because they are teaching children and they want to learn how to do a better job. And they go out and implement what we discuss immediately. They’re not worrying about grades. They’re worrying about teaching kids.

You never really stop working. I retired in 2020, and I’ve published three books since then. I work nonstop. It’s just too much. My mother raised us to be workaholics, and I’m terrified of being bored. I’m eighty-three and I’m in a lot of demand right now [laughs]. That’s why I’m going out of my mind.