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English Language Learners are Great – Every Classroom Should Have One

May 8, 2012

Multicultural faces

Does that title offend you? If it does than I have made my point. The English language is imprecise enough without all of our subtle inferences and connotations. Read the title again and this time read it exactly as it is written – because that is exactly what I mean.

I used to be another ignorant white boy. I didn’t have anything against other races or cultures. I went to church and was a boy scout. I read Maya Angelou poetry in my English class around Dr. Martin Luther King Day. I knew about equality and discrimination and slavery and all that stuff. And I wasn’t a racist by any means, believe me I would admit it if I was – the racist turned equal rights activist story would be a great hook for my blog – it might even land me an interview on the Dr. Phil Show (I miss Oprah).

I may not have been a racist but man was I ignorant. I used to get annoyed when I went somewhere and people were speaking Spanish instead of English. You’ve probably heard it before, maybe you have even said it yourself; “they’re in our country, why can’t they at least speak our language?” Keep in mind I grew up in backwoods Connecticut and still thought speaking Spanish meant you had to be from Spain. College may have helped me become a little more culturally aware, but I still had a long way to go before I really understood how to communicate with my students – or anyone.

I want to tell you a true story, just promise not to laugh at me. When I was very young I remember watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I don’t remember the exact characters but two cartoon animals were in a boxing ring. I believe Bugs was one guy’s manager, and as they huddled in the corner for some last-minute coaching he told the fighter to “box his ears”. The screen cut out and I heard the sounds of a brief scuffle and then a scream. The boxer comes back over to Bugs holding a wooden box and opens it to reveal two slightly bloody ears. I thought it was hilarious of course – what little boy doesn’t enjoy some cartoon violence now and then? A few years later (I was still pretty young) I was watching TV with my brother and there was a reference to boxing. My brother said something about a fight and I proudly interjected “No, that’s not what boxing means, boxing means to cut someone’s ears off.”

It is amazing what sticks in our heads, isn’t it? Now imagine how confusing words and phrases as simple as “what’s up” or “go fly a kite” might be to a student who is not fluent in English – not to mention the long-term damage being done to their language acquisition. Think about how confusing synonyms and homophones are. I’ll never forget when I learned a certain Spanish term for ‘homosexual male’. Do you have any idea how many Spanish words and slang terms sound almost exactly the same to the untrained ear? I must have falsely written up twenty kids that week thanks to a biology lesson on pond ecology. (Extra credit if you got that – see me after class.) The growing numbers of English language learners in our classrooms is forcing us to be much more careful with our words, and that is helping everybody regardless of their primary language. In reality, communication is evolving to the point where none of us speak the same language anyway.

My abstraction of the English language doesn’t come in the form of slang as much as sarcasm.  I love sarcasm. I’m just really good at it; it comes very naturally to me. The real irony is that I most often used sarcasm to point out problems with my students’ language;

“Did you read chapter five last night?”

“No, I hate that book – its mad gay”

“Wow, you caught your book making out with another book? That must have been embarrassing. I’d be a ‘mad gay’ too if I were your book.”

That one is a personal favorite, but it usually went over everyone’s head.

The English language is complicated and it has changed drastically over the past decade. We use so many puns, colloquialisms, synonyms and slang terms which we don’t often think twice about. That’s not always a big deal when two adults from the same generation and similar backgrounds converse but it is a huge problem when we are teaching.

I remember an Algebra 2 class with two girls who had only been in the country for a couple of years. They were two of the sweetest and hardest working students I have ever taught. I’m certain I learned a lot more from them than they learned from me (although I can say that for many of my students). They were my subtle kick in the ass when I started getting careless or off topic. They never once complained about anything, but when I was teaching and noticed that “what the hell is this guy talking about” look on their faces (that facial expression translates quite nicely across most language barriers) I knew it was I that was confusing, not the material.

Now that the language barrier in our classrooms has escalated from subtle variations between generations of similar backgrounds to the extreme differences between distinct root languages and cultural identities – we are forced to recognize just how significant any difference in language really is to a developing human being. (One of these days I will explain how the word ‘and’ is one of the primary reasons that many students struggle with basic computational skills.)

I won’t argue these issues when it comes to adults. Not only is it not my area of expertise (perhaps experience would be a better word than expertise – I’m not really an expert of anything), but I just can’t afford enough deodorant to get me through that debate. I’m saving my Speed Stick for my students. They didn’t choose the language, dialect and non-verbal communication which they were exposed to during their most formative years any more than they chose the town and country in which they live.

As much as I like to push the line – take the title of this piece for example – this may be one of the most profound things I have learned in my career. It is easy to recognize the blatant and overwhelming racism of our past. How many times must any person watch ‘Roots’ or read The Diary of Anne Frank to feel a little empathy and guilt? (Ok, a lot of empathy and guilt.) The danger of focusing on the holocaust or America’s history of slavery as our ‘go to examples’ for racism, prejudice and discrimination is that they are so extreme that we become desensitized to all the less overt yet omnipresent injustices to which we all contribute in some way.

The challenge we face isn’t to learn how to speak the same language or to fight for equality. The moment we start to believe we are speaking the same language – or believing that it is even possible – is the moment our minds become closed. I needed to be thrown into a room full of Puerto Rican teenagers for a few years to learn this lesson. The true challenge is to realize that all men (and women) are not created equal and that is a wonderful thing which should be embraced and respected – not fought and stigmatized.

The only thing each of us truly has in common is the overwhelming need to be free from every type of restraint that can be imposed upon us, and that will only happen when we recognize that equal is a meaningless and dangerous standard. It’s like trying to equally divide water between two glasses – one begins full with the other empty, then you overfill the empty one so you pour a little back – but now that one is a little too full – or perhaps not quite enough… Is it even possible? Do we even possess the capacity to perfectly measure our results? I think we’re there… no wait, a little evaporated in the first glass… And don’t even get me started on how our perception makes it all even more complicated.

Eventually the ones measuring will go crazy and the rest of us will die of thirst.

There are only two ways we can ever truly be free; to be exactly the same in every way or to realize that we were never meant to be exactly the same and let the word equal vanish from our vocabulary – regardless of the language we say it in.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 8, 2012 5:42 pm

    Beautiful piece; and I just have to love a guy that appreciates Bugs Bunny!!

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