Friday, October 18, 2013

English Language Learners and their Native Tongues

What Price Must ELL's Pay?

It's a sad thing that so many people - educators included - view English Language Learners' native tongues as burdensome or unnecessary to students' language and academic development. I read a great article by Judie Haynes that included the case study of a young Puerto Rican student named Isobel. Isobel's teacher told the girl's parents that they should only speak English to her at home so that her English-speaking skills would improve in the classroom. However, Isobel's parents were only fluent in Spanish, and they knew little English.  As a result, the quality of Isobel's and her parents' conversations at home diminished. Eventually Isobel felt ashamed of her native language; she wished her parents could speak proper English like every other adult she knew. Isobel's parents and her teacher did not realize what they were doing by only allowing Isobel to speak in English. This experience was detrimental to her learning because she was not able to express ideas in English that she could have expressed in Spanish. If she had been allowed to discuss her learning and experiences in her native tongue, this knowledge would have transferred over to English eventually. The bottom line is that what students learn in their native languages will help promote their English proficiency. As Judie Haynes says, "The concepts and skills that students learn in one language will transfer to the second language when the learner is ready."

When the learner is ready. That is key. Teachers can't expect students to discuss in English a concept they barely understand in their native language. If, however, schools take a different approach in certain situations and allow students to learn and discuss concepts in their native tongue, it will generally be much easier for those students to display their knowledge in English. Much evidence supports the idea that emerging bilingual students' native language is a strong foundation for future learning (Nieto & Bode, p. 226). Nieto and Bode state that school policies usually want to transition students to English as soon as they can, steering them away from their native language (p. 226). However, research has shown that bilingual brains stay sharp longer than monolingual brains; and increased attention control, working memory, metalinguistic awareness, and abstract reasoning are associated with people who speak more than one language (p. 226). Aren't these traits and skills exactly the sorts of things we want to see in our students? How is it ever okay to take something away from a student that will most likely enrich his or her academic experience? Moreover, when is it ever beneficial to give students the impression that their culture - who they are - is any less superior or unimportant than the dominant culture? These kinds of attitudes need to stop. Not only are they barbaric and inhumane - they are detrimental to students' learning experiences. 

Although a variety of practices exist to teach emerging bilingual students and certain ones are more effective than others, the fact remains that bilingualism can promote learning (p. 226). Instead of viewing students' native tongues as burdens to overcome and regarding English proficiency as the Holy Grail, educators should view bilingualism as an additive factor. Suppressing students' cultures is never the answer. Not only does the research show this, it is common sense. Any practice that makes a student feel inferior or incapable is never the way to go. As educators, we should be conscious of how our teaching practices affect our students and their families, and we should be careful not to give advice to ELL students' families before we have done our research and analyzed the particular situation. English language learners must not pay the price for schools' lack of awareness. Just as we would not want our own children to be deprived of their culture in another land, ELL students' parents generally don't want their children to forget who they are and where they came from. The business aspect of education likes to refer to students as outgoing products; however, we should be careful to remember the individual nature of each of our students. This means seeing their potential, addressing their needs, and encouraging them to be true to their roots. The educational system doesn't need any more robots or carbon copies. We need students who are proud of their diverse backgrounds and use their varying experiences to open our eyes to what learning truly means. 

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