Sunday, November 10, 2013

Breaking Down Language Barriers in the Classroom

Tragic.  That is all I could think as I read Richard Rodriguez' portrayal of his dual personas in the heart wrenching tale of his "assimilation" into the English-speaking identity in Aria.  His retrospectively appreciative depiction of the loss of his "private" Spanish-speaking family culture is a striking reminder of the importance of educating all teachers of English Language Learners to work in concert with the rules, customs, and cultures of students' native languages.  In Teaching Multilingual Children, Virginia Collier illustrates seven strategies for teaching non-native speakers in a way that does not squelch their original languages or cultures.   Had the nuns at Rodriguez' school employed some of Collier's strategies, his tale of the disintegration of his native Spanish in his home life may have instead been a story of celebration of a multi-cultural Spanish-speaking American family.  In looking around for resources for educators, I came across a site for English as a Second Language teachers by Oxford Seminars that contains free lesson plans and resources that shed a light on teaching students of other cultures.  For me, it is imperative to understand and appreciate the cultural perspectives of my students in teaching them Spanish.  Collier's guidelines for teaching English Language Learners may be applied directly to Rodriguez' tale of growing up in with dual public and private identities.

1. Be aware that children use first language acquisition strategies for learning a second language.

Collier defines "caregiver speech" as the language that parents use when communicating at home with their children.  Unfortunately, the day that the nuns paid a visit at home to young Ricardo Rodriguez's family was the turning point in which Spanish became "inferior."  The message implied by the nuns to "practice" English was receive by Rodriguez' parents as "Use English at home."  Rodriguez' parents disowned their "private" selves along with the familiar, comforting, and safe caregiver speech patterns to which their children were accustomed.  Rodriguez writes, "Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me.  Pushed me away.  In that moment of trivial misunderstanding and profound insight, I felt my throat twisted by unsound grief."  Essentially, the nuns, while well-intentioned, dismantled an integral piece of second language acquisition: they stunted the native language. 

2. Do not think of yourself as a remedial teacher expected to correct so-called "deficiencies" of your students.

Knowing one language is not a deficiency to learning another language.  The social stigmatization of home dialects is no different than a cultural genocide.  By diminishing one's language, teachers can inflict true harm on their students as was the case with Richard Rodriguez.  Language is a vague and incredibly seductive mishmash of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, all of which vary from region to region, even here in the United States.  By implying that one way of speaking is "right" (in Rodriguez' case, English) and one is "wrong" (Spanish), the home dialect becomes "socially stigmatized."   Rodriguez describes the increasing silence in his family as his parents became isolated from their own children in trying to promote the publicly necessary English language.  Rodriguez' father, who in his native language was effusive, became no more than a shell of a person in the "English-speaking" household in the eyes of his children.

3.  Don't teach a second language in any way that challenges or seeks to eliminate the first language.

Naturally, any good parent would want to do what is best for his or her children.  Tragically, the nuns approached Rodriguez' family with the probing question, "Do your children speak only Spanish at home, Mrs. Rodriguez?"  They did not ask the family to practice English in conjunction with Spanish, perhaps only while doing homework.  They did not encourage finding similarities and differences between the two languages.  They sought to eliminate the troublesome Spanish.

4.  Teach the standard form of English and students' home language together with an appreciation of dialect differences to create an environment of language recognition in the classroom.

How might Rodriguez' view of his first 6 months in public school have been different if he had not been asked to stand up and speak his "public language: so soon and with so little support.   It is a terrifying scenario for a first grader.  The nuns may have asked him to reflect here and there on differences and similarities between Spanish and English. They may have asked him, "How do you say "apple" in Spanish, Richard?  What kinds of fruit do you and your family eat?" I have learned a myriad of new words since teaching Spanish to Latin American students.  My Castilian Spanish has diversified through speaking with my Mexican and Dominican colleagues and translating for my administrators.   It is not limiting or wrong; it is educational.

5.  Do not forbid young students from code-switching in the classroom.  Understand the function that code-switching serves.

Much to the chagrin of my department chair, I am a strong proponent of code-switching in my Spanish classroom for a variety of the reasons shown in Collier's code-switching pattern charts.  My department chair is a language purist but I am a believer in frequent and authentic, albeit imperfect, communication.  We debate about the this and have agreed to disagree.  I feel as though tolerating no less than perfection stifles both the desire and ability to communicate. In Spanish 1, I encourage the use of "Spanglish" with the ultimate goal of a comfortable and natural simplified Spanish by the end of the year.  Collier eloquently states, "Whenever speakers of two languages come in contact with each other, three natural processes occur:  code-switching, language influence, and word borrowing."  Code-switching was not an option for Rodriguez in his "public" role as a student.

6. Provide a literacy development curriculum that is specifically designed for English language learner.

According to Collier, "Any academic home language development that benefits a child's cognitive development, whether oral or written, will transfer to the second language.  It turns out that the first language transfer is swift, even when the writing systems are not the same."  Sadly, for Rodriguez, academic home language was squelched at a very young age.  Language acquisition, to me, is like a series of mathematical patterns in one's mind.  As a learner of a second language, I agree that the transfer of one's ideas is enhanced by being academically proficient in one's first language.  Upon becoming bilingual, higher level thoughts swiftly transfer into the non-native language even if speaking patterns are different.   It is devastating for me to imagine having learned Spanish without having my full English-speaking skill set and identity.  Being raised in a bilingual household is a very precious gift if the native language is used and developed.  Code-changing is normal and appropriate. ESL teachers need to recognize that they will need to work differently with their non-native students to convey concepts.   Language acquisition is a lengthy process.

7.  Provide a balanced and integrated approach to the four language skills:  listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Using a balanced approach to the four language acquisition skills has in my experience been the best way to learn and teach language.  I was taught Spanish in an unbalanced way for most of my high school years.  I essentially read, wrote, and listened to the language.  My classrooms were teacher-centered, and I memorized verb conjugations.  I learned to decipher written questions by isolating parts of speech, particularly verbs, and answering using the same language in a different order.  The was nothing genuine or authentic about my communication, and my speaking skills were limited.  I received the Academic Excellence Award for Spanish but felt like a sham; as isolated from Spanish as Richard Rodriguez was from English at the beginning of first grade.   It was my "formal language."   I point to my college experience of translating poetry and literature and listening to my professors speak Spanish as the beginning of my formative years of learning the language.  I had a grammatical background and some rudimentary skills, but I was heavily dependent on my dictionary.  Studying abroad was my bridge, and my informal interactions with Spaniards at home and in shops, bars, restaurants, and the university forced me to branch out.   My listening skills were vastly improved by watching dubbed versions of Bay Watch, The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, and Family Matters with my host family.  My learning was a true culmination of these four skills, and once it began to "click," my English processing seamless transferred over to Spanish.   If I had had that experience in high school, I would not have suffered through semesters of college and later, graduate school.    Had Richard Rodriguez had that experience with English at an early age; had he been paired with classmates and been able to exchange language informally while maintaining his ethnic identity, perhaps Aria would be a less tragic portrayal of becoming American.


  1. Hi Amy! I agree with you that Rodriguez's account is a heartbreaking one. I felt myself thinking about growing up in my house and my family speaking at dinner. I felt that where it is sad that his parents listened to the advice of the nuns, I feel that my parents would have done whatever people at my school thought would help me succeed the most to. I think its a tricky line, and ultimately the loss of their identity as a family is so sad.

  2. Amy, I love the passion of this post and of how well you synthesized the two texts. Your voice truly flourishes in this piece and that, along with how you weaved Collier and Rodriguez into one, works. Your love of Spanish and thus, being bilingual, is a true asset. Thank you for your support during our discussion and for bringing your expertise into the mix. I hope you enjoyed it.