If you talk to …

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.
‒Nelson Mandela

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
‒Rita Mae Brown

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
‒Oliver Wendell Holmes

I’m not going to lie. I Googled these quotes. As I’m on my own path to improving my Spanish, I think about language acquisition every day. My experience with teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) has been that they’re easy for a school administration to ignore. If there’s not a sizable population at your school (i.e., not enough to drag down test scores) they can get shuffled into standard classes and left to drown.

With my limited experience, I have found myself, and witnessed other teachers, advocating for ELLs who, literally, could not advocate for themselves.

There’s a stage in language acquisition where you basically go mute. It happened to me here in Venezuela. You’re listening and trying to understand what’s around you, but it’s too overwhelming to try to formulate your own sentences. Thus, you allow someone else to formulate them for you or you just don’t speak.

When that happens to students at a school where the admin doesn’t have their best interest at heart (rather, they follow the “put them somewhere and they’ll pick up the language eventually” policy), it can be dangerous because it’s setting up students for failure.

I don’t want to hear arguments about “if they came here they need to learn the language. We shouldn’t have to teach them in school. This is America!”

1.) The US does not have an official language. Don’t believe me? Check the CIA World Factbook under People and Society.

2.)  I would like to see those same people (over the age of seven) plunked down in a foreign country and see how well they learn the language with no formal instruction. I could be described as highly-literate in English. That fact is supposed to make learning a second language easier. It has, but it’s still far from easy.

Myself and many other teachers have a soft spot for ELLs. Educators often cite that the students are extremely hard-working. I think that’s because if they’re recent immigrants they know what they sacrificed as far as leaving country (and maybe even family) to move to the US. Thus, they’re not there to play in school (unlike some of my beloved American students).

Back during student teaching, one of my best friends discovered at the year’s close that the ELLs scored higher on a standard statewide exam than his native speaking English students. He enjoyed teaching the ELLs more than his traditional section because discipline was not an issue and the students put in the work.

I have a soft spot for ELLs because 1.) I love any and everything related to (im)migration, 2.) I myself want to learn another language so I can put myself in their shoes and 3.) they remind of my father.

He’s Nigerian, where English is the official language, but his native tongue is not English. Since Nigeria’s uber-diverse, by the time my dad left he spoke at least four languages.

Americans can take a page from many immigrants’ books instead of bragging about only knowing how to speak one language and expecting everyone else to learn it. Quite frankly, the way some Americans write (I am an English teacher) I wonder just how well they’ve mastered their language. Yet I digress (and am being snarky).

I envy anyone who’s bilingual. My current students inspire me every day. They chatter away in Spanish walking up to my classroom door and can switch to English as soon as they cross its threshold. They tease me because of my accent or say mine’s not as bad as other teachers they’ve had in the past.

They can interact with more people than I can and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s not something that needs to be changed or demonized or controlled because language is too powerful and too emotional for that.

I would be traumatized if I was punished for speaking the only language I knew fluently. That’s happened too many times in US history. It’s silencing, it’s oppressive, and it’s colonialistic.

I’m not about it, but I am about bilingualism.

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2 thoughts on “If you talk to …

  1. Wonderful article, Kelley. It always surprises me when people are unsympathetic to ELL’s, given the dismal failure of most Americans to master a second language.

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