Points In Between: Episode 7
“Me in English”
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 7: Me In English
Here’s a simple question: What is the most widely spoken language in the world?
Before you answer, let me play you something.
Remember Tobias, who grew up between Germany, the US and Belgium? This first part here is about his life before kindergarten, first in Germany and then, briefly, in the US.
Tobias: At home my parents were speaking German and English with us because they wanted us to start speaking English with more ease when we were at school. So even though I'd grown up just speaking German, I started speaking English for the first time.
His family returned to Germany, then moved to Belgium, where he attended an International School.
Tobias: I spoke English every day in school. All my classes were in English except my language classes because I took French class and German class. All I spoke at home was English, just because my dad was speaking English at work, my mom was speaking English all the time. My siblings were obviously as well. We only spoke German when we would visit my German grandparents in Germany. French we learned because, you know, when you go out to buy groceries you have to be able to speak the language that is around you.
Or how about this one?
Lingerr was born in the US to Gambian parents. They returned to The Gambia when Lingerr was 5 and she attended elementary and middle school there.
Lingerr: We spoke English. My parents spoke to me in both Aku and Wolof, which are both languages in The Gambia and in other West African countries as well. So, though I fluently understand Aku and I almost fluently understand Wolof, we almost always spoke English to each other.
Shane: And do a lot of people in The Gambia speak English?
Lingerr: Yeah, so the Gambia was colonized by the British, like a lot of countries unfortunately on the continent of Africa. So English is the national language. I would say that everyone speaks some English, but the most spoken languages are probably Mandinka and Wolof. When I was younger in The Gambia I tried to speak Wolof a few times and people laughed at me made fun of me, so I basically never spoke it even though I always understood it, which has led me to fascinating situations in The Gambia where people will talk trash about me in front of my face in Wolof thinking I don't understand but I really do.
The language of instruction in Lingerr’s school was English, but the languages for social interaction among the students were more varied.
Lingerr: Some people would speak English during lunch a little bit. I think with some of the Gambian languages people would go back and forth between saying stuff in Wolof and saying it in English all the time, but I also was with this group of friends and none of us spoke any of the other languages. So we were basically just always together. Sometimes as we got older we started actually hanging out with other people more. But for maybe at least five or six years in like middle and early high school we basically only hung out with each other.
So let me pose that question again: What is the most widely spoken language in the world?
To answer it, you’ve got to make a decision. Does Tobias count toward the number of English-speakers because that’s what he speaks most frequently? Does he count as a German-speaker because that was his first language? Or a French-speaker because that was the language of the country where he lived and he speaks it in public? Does he count for all three?
And what about Lingerr? If her parents or classmates speak to her in Aku or Wolof she understands them, but she responds in English, so is she only an English speaker?
This episode of Points In Between explores language. Language as a feature of identity, as an obstacle to be overcome by students, and as an entrée into many parts of society.
Language is complicated. Speaking a language is both a thing you do and, at the same time, a marker of who you are in relation to a community.
At home, Lingerr and her parents formed a single small community despite sometimes using two languages in even the same conversation. At school, though, her social circle was defined by the language she felt comfortable speaking, not just by the ones she understood.
For students in school, often the most emotionally important element of language is how it can isolate them from the rest of their school community.
And of course, as you heard in Lingerr’s account, this is not unique to America. Ruth, who moved from Ohio to Mexico as a young child, had a vivid experience of isolation there before she learned to speak Spanish.
Ruth: One of the first memories that I have is being on the school bus - it was kind of a small school bus for a private school in the southern part of Mexico City - in the Pedregal. And the Pedregal is on volcanic rock, so the shock from the earthquake wasn't felt as strongly but the earthquake was in the morning and - the 1985 earthquake of Mexico City - and I didn't feel it. I do remember that we stopped the bus and everybody got out and I didn't know what they were saying and so I just stayed on the bus and we went through the whole school day and when we were coming home on the bus somebody, this guy Oscar, said something about earthquake in English and I was like, “What? Earthquake?” And then of course he was like, “Oh my God, you hadn't found out! What's wrong with you?” And it was because I hadn't understood. Then I got home that night my parents told me that there'd been a really huge earthquake in the city. Everybody had figured something out together and I had no clue. And I was just kind of like keeping my head down, feeling… you know, like, yes unaware of my surroundings but also because I didn't understand anything not trying to let on [laughs] but it evident later that I had no clue what was happening.
Ruth’s story reveals confusion, feelings of isolation, and embarrassment – all common components of this process. When Ruth returned to the US at 16, she certainly felt some cultural dislocation but she wasn’t isolated by language. She already spoke English.
Roya’s family fled Afghanistan for India when she was 11 and she moved to the US when she was 14. When she left Afghanistan she spoke Farsi and some Russian, because it was required in school. They moved from Afghanistan first to India, where she learned Hindi. So English was her fourth language.
Roya: It was so difficult to walk in the class and everybody’s speaking English and you’re just sitting there like deaf, like you don't know what they're saying and you’re like, “Oh my god.”
Shane: And you had already done that once with a Hindi…
Roya: The Hindi because - it was a year break. So I was home learning, you know… it wasn't that getting in the classroom right away. So I had to get adjusted and learn a little bit, picking up the language in my own ways to go to class. But this one was like… from Hindi coming here and then all English it was like…it was really hard because I felt like…I am coming in a place that I just don’t know the language. I can’t communicate. I don’t have any friends. Nobody talks to me. I’m like invisible, like someone sitting there and kind of like, “What’s going on here?”
Shane: Do you remember any teachers reaching out to you then?
Roya: I had two. Ms. Grady, I never forget her. She was amazing. She was English Second Language. She was one of the best teachers I ever had. I still remember her. She was the one who really helped us - the group of English Second Language classes. She took us to her home, she kind of exposed to American culture, took us to restaurants, really became like our friend, hanging out with us and teaching us. She was incredible. I never forgot her. I think she was just trying to reach us and make us feel comfortable and make us to connect with her and not feeling lonely, not feeling we’re not part of that school. Like, she would be coming our [indecipherable] to go have our lunch, go stay in a classroom and just chit-chat with her and talk to her
Shane: How long did it take you to get comfortable with the language?
Roya: Oh my God… I would say college. The first two years was hard. It was really, really difficult but I would say college was easier. I didn't really care about my accent. Because I was so cautious about my accent.
Like Ruth, Roya felt socially isolated and embarrassed by her inability to communicate. Concern over her accent made it even harder to practice and learn the language. Her ESL teacher formed a crucial bridge to her new community and you can hear in Roya’s voice that her teacher’s kindness and the emotional connection she offered was at least as important as the language instruction.
Education programs for non-English speakers have a complicated history in American schools. We’ve had them here in the US in different forms since long before the widespread establishment of public schools – actually even since before the establishment of the US. Programs have ranged from true bilingual education – that is, education that preserves students’ original language, teaching new content in their original language while they acquire English - to classes simply to teach English. For most of US history, they tended to be local initiatives, created to serve the needs of particular communities.
But schools are powerful vectors to teach or reinforce broader cultural ideas. In the 1870s the federal government began supporting a system of Indian Residential Schools. Native American parents were frequently coerced into sending their children to these schools – often far from home. The students were required to learn and communicate in English as part of a larger program of disrupting and really eradicating Native American cultures. Of course, these schools happened in the context of conquest, not immigration.
The first quarter of the 20th century saw a massive influx of newcomers to the US. Like the then still-suspect Irish population, many of them were Catholic. Unlike earlier waves of European immigrants, the majority came from Southern and Eastern Europe. At the same time, the Mexican Revolution caused an increase in immigration from Mexico to the southwestern states.
This is the period, right after World War I, when language instruction and English as THE language of instruction, began to take on its modern explosive political character. At the heart of the conflict are two, connected, ideas about schools. The first is schools as pathways to economic opportunity. And the second is schools as forces to spread and reinforce American cultural norms.
How do students who can’t speak English access school, as opportunity? Are they on their own, or do schools provide instruction in English? And, is that bilingual education? Or do students have to master English before they can access the school’s math and science and history instruction? In other words, how much of your first culture and language do you have to give up in order to access the American Dream?
The 1967 federal Bilingual Education Act and the 1974 Lau v. Nichols court case affirmed that schools had a responsibility to make education accessible to students who couldn’t speak English. But policies governing the exact nature of that instruction are still in constant flux.
There’s the big picture, and then there’s how it feels to be in it.
Yesica came from Mexico in 6th grade. She and her family moved to a Chicago neighborhood that was home to both new immigrants and Mexican-American families.
Yesica: So that's the thing. A lot of people that speak English and newcomers, they don't really get along. Like, you’d think that you’d get along just because you're the same ethnicity, like you both are Mexican, but that's not really the case. And I was actually bullied a lot throughout school just because not knowing English. And it's like, I didn't want to be stuck that way. I want to know what they're saying back to me, so then actually that really pushed me to learn the language because I just felt like I was being isolated and I had no idea whether…like, if they were talking bad about me or...I guess you always just get paranoid.
So they put me in a bilingual class and my teacher did speak Spanish but she would just run her class all in English most of the time. There would only be sections that she would speak Spanish or if you actually had question she would speak to you in Spanish, but other than that she would always just speak English in class. And a little bit…that was a little hard to keep up at first, especially because it was all just like… foreign words and you don’t even know what she’s saying unless …when she would write on the board then I would get it, because you can see it. But most of the time I would just have a dictionary on my desk and then whenever I didn't understand something she would say I would just look it up because I couldn't be raising my hand all the time to ask her, “What did you say? What did you say?” And actually that was really tough. My grades weren't that good in the beginning. I think I mostly had Cs. So going from an A student to a C, that was kind of like…that was kind of a blow to my ego. I was like "I can't believe I'm not doing good anymore!"
Shane: How did that change you when you couldn't speak the language and you weren't still a good student?
Yesica: That changed me a lot, actually. I feel like I became more of a quiet person and more observant because if you're not able to talk to anyone then you're just watching everything else going on around you. So, yeah, I mean…I would only talk to kids that I would like hear that they spoke Spanish before. Because most of the kids, like…I would want to start a conversation with someone I didn't know and I can only speak Spanish and like, "I know you can speak Spanish" so I would talk to them in Spanish, but then they would reply to me in English and just like, " I'm trying to talk to you and you're replying to me in a way that I can't even understand!” So yeah, so that didn't go well. So I ended up only making friends with the other kids that were also newcomers. Not the kids that were already here but people that were also immigrating.
Shane: Do you think that made you want to hold onto Spanish more? Or do you think it made you…? How did that make you feel about your own language?
Yesica: It actually made me feel kind of ashamed. I feel like even when I started speaking English, if you spoke with an accent, a really heavy accent, then you're being laughed at by everyone else by all the other kids. Even adults would be like, "I don't understand you," you know and that kind of puts you in an embarrassing spot. Like, you're trying to communicate and if the person doesn't understand you, that just makes you more afraid to even want to speak more.
Yesica described the same sense of isolation and embarrassment as Roya, but her English-learning experience was very different. Roya’s teacher couldn’t speak Farsi, but her actions made her feel welcomed in a way that the rest of her school experience did not. Conversely, Yesica’s sense of isolation and embarrassment was increased by the fact that her teacher and classmates could speak Spanish, but just wouldn’t.
Another complicating element of this process is the distance between the kid experience and the adult, parent experience. I asked Yesica if she spoke with her parents about her challenges at school.
Yesica: I mostly just kept it to myself really. I would talk about it with my sister because I would know she would go through the same hardships that I did. I had to like tell her, "It's going to be okay" because nobody else would tell her that. And I also, like, the reason why I wanted to learn English quickly was just because – to help her with her homework as well because, I mean, there was nobody else that would help you. And they would always used to send us upstairs with my cousin. I mean, he was in eighth grade and they were all, “Go ask him for help to do, you know, with your homework in English…” But he would always just be pissed off and like, "Why do I have to deal with this? Why do I have to do somebody else's homework?"
Kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, whose parents don’t understand American schools, have to look elsewhere – or to each other – for help.
So far as he remembers, Ra’ouf was the only Arabic-speaker in his school, but someone there thought to reach out to a community organization to provide help.
Ra’ouf: But after a while, I think three months, I found out about the Arabic Community Cultural Center in my neighborhood, the Tenderloin.
Shane: Did they help you learn English there?
Ra’ouf: Yeah. They really break that barrier. I was referred to it, and that’s where I found my real mentor. And the first time I went up to him, you know, he gave me a math problem and I solved it. And he says, “Good sign.” He gave me the second one. I solved it. He gave me the third problem and I struggled, but he was able to sort of like show me the mistake and then went back and correct it, you know. And he told me "Don't go nowhere." And I told him, “What do you mean?” He said, "Stay with me. I want to help you out.”
Ra’ouf began going to the Cultural Center regularly, heading straight there after school got out.
Ra’ouf: And we sometimes just stay until like 9:00 o'clock and my family just worried, you know. I didn't even have a phone – a cell phone - so that they can call me. And they told me, “Why you're staying up that late? We're just worried about you. You can't stay that long." But they...I told them, “Don't worry, I'm just with Ibrahim.”
Ra’ouf’s relationship with Ibrahim deepened into something far beyond tutor and student.
Ra’ouf: Holistically, if I go back and look at the whole picture, he was just a mentor. He was someone that was always for me. And in fact when I was in my last, senior, year it was the big jump, you know, when he decided to push me hard enough to say that I need to go to UC Berkeley.
Ra’ouf recently graduated from UC Berkeley and he volunteers at the Cultural Center.
If you’ve ever tried to master a new language, you know it is a significant task that extends far beyond the classroom.
Caroline came from Czech Republic when she was 14. For several months, she lived with a Czech-American girl who became her friend and introduced her to a social circle.
Caroline: It was very, like, boys-focused. [laughs] I would be texting with boys and trying to be cute and trying to learn just how to be conversational. And I got this… like one of those pop out phones when you have the keyboard underneath. The text.... I realize that texting was like the essence of people's lives. So you would go home after school and all you would do is just have these long conversation over text messages. That's when it really all kicked in in terms of language.
And then, of course, there’s TV.
Caroline: At that time because of that girl I lived with, you know, she would put on Sponge Bob or she put on any of these shows and I started realizing like, “Oh, this could be really good.” So I got into Hannah Montana and I would watch that with subtitles on and I've heard a couple people say this already, like you know, people that come here, they're immigrants, like trying to learn the language. It's always the shows. It's always things like, easy things, like especially older shows like Friends and all that stuff when they when they speak most of the time properly, I would say, but they still speak in that like social...I don't know. Just, you know things that you would say every day, on an everyday basis. Stuff like that. So when you put on the subtitles, you start to read and you start to understand what's being said and you start to adopt that vocabulary, that speaking vocabulary. And that is that is how I learned English. It's Hannah Montana.
The things these speakers describe, from tutoring to watching Hannah Montana, all take time. But their efforts may not be visible to their teachers.
Angel is an exchange student at UC Berkeley and when she came she knew that class participation was important for her grade, but it posed a challenge.
Angel: Sometimes I feel difficulties because the lecturer will ask a question and I know the answer but I have to translate to English first, then I can speak. But the American student can speak out immediately and then I lose the chance to speak. So I have to prepare first. In the beginning of the semester, before the seminar class, I would think of what kind of a question the lecturer will ask and I prepare for my... I write down, I even write down my answer first and to like imitate a class scene so that when the question pops up in the class I would just try to answer that question I had prepared before. Yeah, but with time passing I'm fine now. It's like... it's getting easier.
Shane: Do you think you're do you think your professors know that you're preparing ahead of time?
Angel: I don't think so. I don't think he noticed that I had to prepare more.
I asked Juliana, an exchange student from Brazil, if she thought the experience of being in English-speaking classrooms had changed her in any way.
Juliana: I do think I'm completely different actually. In Brazil I used to be very shy. I wouldn't talk. I would still talk with my professors in private, but not during class discussions or anything like that. Here now I tend to speak more, to talk about my opinions, my point of view, my cultural background and not only that but I think the fact that I had to study English to understand what others were saying it kind of gave me like the courage to talk more in class even when language it was… even when the language was complicated and I couldn't understand it. But, it kind of gave me like this courage this push to talk more. It doesn't truly matter your grammar mistakes. You just need to be able to communicate what you want, the idea that you want. I started to think just about this. “Oh it doesn't matter if I'm, like, if this pronoun is wrong or if this preposition is wrong. The only thing that I want to do is communicate my idea.” And then I started to think about that. And even in, like back in Brazil now, I just think about that. I just want to communicate my idea.
Juliana said the process of doing all her studies in a new language changed her personality. But Omar, originally from Syria and now studying in Vermont, went deeper into the connection between language and identity itself.
Just a note before you listen, to avoid any confusion, he uses the word co-years to refer to his classmates.
Omar: Even me in Arabic is I think very different from me in English. Like that's what, at least, I can hear from my co-years that speak Arabic. I can sense the difference between me speaking in English with them or anyone else and me speaking in Arabic. I think, or at least I … I believe that I am funnier in Arabic that I am more…I don’t know. There are definitely changes even within the personality itself, with the things you would be talking about, with the way you would be talking about certain stuff. When I start speaking Arabic I already assume that I'm back on my, like, the Arabic part of my culture. And you start making those jokes that would make sense only for someone who lived in the Arab world or who understands the culture at least. And there are always those parts that you can never …not translate but you can never transcend… like make them be transcended from one language to the other. They just stay within that language and you can never show them or use them except using that language.
I think it's really interesting to talk with someone in a language for a while and then change the language, if you both speak the same, and just see how different they can be and how, like…they would make a whole new first impression, I think, with a new language because they can be two different things.
Omar’s comments get at the universe of beliefs, and values, and associations that are wrapped up in language. Internally, he is two connected, but different Omars: Omar in Arabic and Omar in English. This helps explain the intensity of the rejection Yesica felt when her classmates and teacher refused to speak Spanish with her. They weren’t just rejecting a certain set of words. And it gives insight into arguments that schools should help students retain their first languages while learning English.
When newcomers arrive in US schools, they find this set of linguistic identities overlaid on top of other, peculiarly American, categories of identity.
We’re going to end with Cat’s story. When she moved from Spain to Plano, Texas, at age 9 she spoke only Spanish.
Cat: So my stepdad took me to the office and introduced me to the person working at the main desk and told them that my name was Cathy, which is funny now because I had never really heard that name, before because in Spanish my friends would call me Cati. And so I right away everyone was calling me Cathy and it seemed kind of funny to me and like it wasn't really me, it was sort of like a disguised name. [laughs] And then I also remember having this thought that if I had that name people would assume that I would be able to speak English, but that that could be… that could become a problem.
And then I remember going into the classroom and being introduced to the teacher and given a desk. I remember the teacher was very nice and very well-meaning, but she seemed kind of … the look on her face was sort of one of…you know, like she just she was a little overwhelmed by the concept of having to take me into the classroom. And I remember her talking to me and I sort of, you know, look down at the ground or made some facial expression that made her realize that I didn't understand what she was saying. [laughs] I think she was really worried at first about how this was all going to work out.
At first, as you heard in other accounts, social interactions were difficult.
Cat: …and I could definitely tell when the kids were talking to me in a teasing way from the tone. And I remember that being really like difficult to hear. I thought of myself as being like quite a clever little kid who had a lot of comebacks in Spain and - because it was a kind of a tough neighborhood that I grew up in - we had a very… like our social culture was very …the hierarchies were very marked and, you know, the only way that you could sort of assert yourself was through being cunning and clever and all of a sudden that was like taken away from me and I had no way of expressing my - what I perceived to be - my social dominance. So I was really disappointed.
But yeah over time, pretty quickly over time I remember starting to understand, you know, a few words and then more words. So I have this weird memory of like the crystallization of what people are saying where I could pick up two or three words in a sentence and then over time I could pick up most of the sentence and then I think, from what I'm told, by the end of the first year I was pretty much at grade level.
Though there were other Spanish-language speakers in the school, they were Mexican, not Spanish.
Cat: But I remember thinking how different, not only the Spanish itself was, but also just our culture and our experiences and our background and our outlook. So I did speak some Spanish at school with Spanish speakers…
There were no Spanish-speaking students in her class and Cat really wanted to be able to communicate in English.
Cat: …so I would get home from school and watch TV and use that …I don’t know if it was conscious or not but I definitely remember like practicing, like talking back at my TV and trying to say whatever was being said and using that to sort of learn in a safe environment where I wasn't testing like slang words out on kids, because that felt very high risk. Like trying out a phrase that I had never said before, out loud, in public felt like it was a very risky thing to do.
Shane: Do you do you remember having any experience where you tried to say something and people actually laughed at you or did you? Or was it like more of a fear in your head?
Cat: No it definitely happened all the time. And I don’t… I can only remember one experience and I don't know exactly when it was but it must been pretty early on. I remember being really proud of myself because I raised my hand and I knew what I was going to say before I said it. But then I asked her for the “work shit” instead of work sheet and I remember the entire class laughing and I didn't initially…it took me a while to figure out that I had said the word wrong. But I was…I just felt like I couldn't … all the wind was knocked out of me and I didn't ever want to say anything out loud in front of my classmates again because they just all thought it was so hilarious. And I think she was wondering if I did it, like, on purpose almost and I could kind of see that in her face and I was so devastated because I really wanted to please her. [laughs]
For the part of this story, it helps to know that to an American eye, Cat is pretty unambiguously white.
Cat: There is one thing that I recall, that I often wonder about now, which is that for a reason that's not known to me that first year that I was in Plano at this elementary school, I was assigned a speech therapist to work with me. In my memory it's something like an hour a day that she would take me out of the classroom. The rest of the time I was I was just like in the regular, sort of embedded in the classroom. There wasn't an ESL program. But I would sit with this person and, as I recall, we would basically practice pronunciation. And I now, as a teacher and as someone who's interested in public education, I marvel at that and I wonder how that happened in a public school that I was given that much time and attention. And I have to …I feel like I have to credit that with how quickly I was able to learn the language. My mom has a very strong accent when she speaks English and some of my friends who I met in Texas that were around my age, have an accent when they speak English and I can't help but wonder if her work with me on - it was very detail like vowel pronunciation work – if it was part of the reason why I was able to assimilate, you know, learn the language quickly and also not have an accent.
The non-Spanish-speaking kids didn't see me as any different than the Mexican immigrants and yet I wonder if the staff did? That haunts me a little bit. Like, I do wonder if it was a white skin privilege thing and or… I don't know. Or if it was the third grade teacher happened to, you know, I was the only English learner in her class so maybe it had more to do with her and some strings that she pulled or some requests that she made that other teachers didn't make. But there it was.
In this episode you heard stories about how it feels to attend a school where you can’t speak the language, about the strategies kids use to learn to communicate in a new language, and the complicated ways that language relates to people’s larger sense of identity.
Episode 8 of Points In Between will explore stories about learning a new culture and how it feels to miss home – even when home wasn’t perfect.
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.