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Can't We All Just Speak English?

Scorpio Sphinx Languages 6-27-05

By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas

Our host and hostess graciously offered us first choice in tasting an aromatic dish of regional specialty. We nodded appreciatively and proceeded to voraciously praise the delicious dish and gesture profusely to emphasize our delight in sharing a meal with them during our stay in Oberammergau, Germany. They nodded, smiled, and responded in kind.

The End

That's one way of remembering it. In actuality, I was exhausted from trying to communicate with perfectly nice strangers in a culture and language that intrigued me but whose habits and speech eluded me. Facial muscles tightened from so much effort in attempting to convey meaning from non-verbal means; my head throbbed from cognitive dissonance as the brain frantically processed foreign sounds and syntax onto paths with no destination. Frustration mixed with sadness overwhelmed me because I was unable to tell the family Bergenstamm how grateful I was for their hospitality.

The Premise:
All Students Must Be Literate.

A simple anecdote from long ago illustrates a temporary linguistic condition experienced by a seventeen-year-old American girl on her first trip abroad. Most of my encounters on the three-week whirlwind tour of Europe transpired in English, as the large group of English speakers roamed the capitals and environs of Western Europe, ill equipped to communicate in any of the languages of the host peoples.

Flash-forward to the present, and consider the challenge faced daily by millions of students in the public school systems of the United States. To succeed, they need to communicate in an unknown language in an unfamiliar setting — and are ill equipped to do so.

Nine Million and Growing.

According to a recent article in The Washington Times (June 19, 2005), a biennial report to Congress published by the Department of Education stated that nine million students in our public schools do not speak English — and the number is growing by one million each year. The same article added that one-fourth of California's pupils do not speak English and that almost one-fifth of the students in Texas, Nevada, and New Mexico speak other languages.

Educators need to ensure that English Language Learners reach proficiency in the English language as quickly as possible. Donna Christian, president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, emphasized that we all must share a common language, English, and that students must learn it to a high degree so that they can be successful. Most astutely, she added, it is also important for teachers to know a second language as a total of 440 different languages are spoken nationally (The Washington Times, June 19, 2005).

When we learn a language, we learn a culture. When English Language Learners (ELLs) become literate in English, they become familiar with the cultural and social realities that English speakers live in (Halliday, 1993). Because English is the dominant language of the United States, all students must have effective control of the language in order to access a broad range of life choices in the culture. Anderson and Irvine wrote in 1993 that "the language chosen for reading and writing determines who produces knowledge and who has access to it" (Rivera, 1999, p. 490). No matter what country one resides in, it is imperative that one be literate in the dominant language in order to negotiate the complexities of that culture. Without linguistic and cultural competence, the simplest tasks become daunting endeavors.

The End

Shared Knowledge
Of a Second Language.

I crossed the border at Hegyeshalom, Hungary, alone and by train. The familiar world of German language and ritual melted into a tiny blur of tidy golden stucco cottages and red-tiled roofs. The border patrol entered our compartment and routinely uttered something. What did they want? Passports? Money? Some other kind of document? I observed my seatmates pulling out passports, and quickly retrieved mine from my bag. Uneasily I relinquished my passport; the officer asked me something else. I looked at him quizzically. What else did I have that he wanted? "Fahrkarte," he adlibbed in heavily accented German. Thank goodness, I could understand. He needed to see my train ticket.

In the above situation, communication was achieved through shared knowledge of a second language. Fortunately for me, German was acceptable as an alternative language of daily communication in Hungary in the early 1990s. I could speak it with some fluency, as could most of my colleagues — a blessing of immeasurable benefit to successful fulfillment of my duties as a teacher of English as a foreign language in Györ, Hungary.

Unfortunately for the immigrant students in U. S. public school systems, students and teachers don't have the luxury of sharing a lingua franca.

The premise, then, is the necessity for all students to be literate in English. Now the debate can begin.

How do teachers, many of whom are monolinguists with little or no methodology in teaching English as a Second Language, create a classroom environment in which all learners can find their "authentic voices" (Giroux, 1986) — the personal voice of competence that earns the necessary cultural capital for success in the United States?

How do teachers support students in finding their authentic voices when the students don't speak English? How do they establish comfort zones for students who are unfamiliar with classroom expectations in a "foreign" environment?

The End

From Silence to Communication.

Classes had already been in session for three weeks at the primary school where our son Marcus would be enrolled for his third year of schooling. He put on a brave front as we entered the heavy wooden doors towering above the wide pedestrian sidewalk. My colleague Annamaria met us at the stairs and led us up one flight to Kati Néni's third grade classroom. As we entered the seasoned room, she spoke firmly to the class and everyone rose at once and in unison spoke something to us. We smiled at the curious group of children as Kati Néni spoke again and they seated themselves, two to a desk, as smoothly as a flock of geese alighting on the Duna River outside our apartment window.

Marcus was fortunate, too. His seatmate had attended a Catholic parochial school in Egypt for a year, where his Dad was employed as an engineer, so Gergö was appointed translator for Marcus. None of Marcus' other classmates, or any of his other teachers spoke English. Marcus did not volunteer to speak in class for four months. We hired a tutor and encouraged him to play with my colleague's children. By the second semester, he was able to speak communicative Hungarian.

Cognition and language development are structured through daily social and cultural practices. If we want our ELL students to develop intellectually and socially, then they must interact with their peers in the daily rituals of classroom learning. Supporting ELLs with compassion and creative pedagogical innovations can ease the transition from silence to communication, and from communication to literacy.

The End


Archibald, G. (2005, June 19). Foreign speakers swamp schools. The Washington Times. Retrieved June 22, 2005, from http:// www.washingtontimes.com

Giroux, H. A. (1986). Teacher education and the ideology of social control. Journal of Education, 7, 5-27.

Halliday, M.A. K. (1993). Language in a changing world (Occasional Paper No. 13). Canberra, Australia: Applied Linguistics Association of Australia.

Rivera, K. M. (1999). Popular research and social transformation: A community-base approach to critical pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly 33(3), 485-500.

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