Is Learning English the only thing that matters?

During the course of my research I see kids doing really cool stuff with language every day. They play around with each others’ languages, take interest in learning vocabulary words across different languages and think deeply about audience and perspective as they try out different linguistic forms. In a journal article I published in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, I used the following data, which I call The Curl Conversation:

The teacher busily wrote on the board, seemingly oblivious to the rich learning going on in the margins of the classroom. Juan Carlos leaned across his desk and pulled on one of Claudia’s bouncy dark curl. Claudia had moved to the United States from Colombia a few years earlier. He let it go and then, almost tenderly, wrapped the curly strand around his finger. “Como crespo [Like curl]?” he asked. “No, rizos [No, curls],” she replied using the Colombian word. Juan Carlos, a Mexican, asked, “Que es rizo [What is curl]?”

“Como Maritza,” Claudia replied. Maritza was wearing her hair in several long loose ringlets tied together with a pink ribbon. Juan Carlos leaned over to ask Paloma, a Chilean, how she said curl. “Si, crespo [Yes, curl],” she replied.

Juan Carlos needed confirmation: “Tambien se dice crespo [Do you also say curl]?” Paloma, a shy young woman from Chile told him he was correct. Juan Carlos seemed satisfied and informed them, “Chinito en El Salvador [Little curl in El Salvador].” The conversation continued for some time and someone offered the word “colocho [curl]” as another alternative.

(Fieldnotes, November 12, 2009).

I saw a lot of instances like this occurring in a classroom I observed for a year in Los Angeles. It was like two worlds: the world of the school and the teacher, and the world of the young people living and learning in transnational diversity. What I love about this excerpt is that it shows young people playfully trying out variations of words to describe something familiar: curly hair. One of my favorite ethnographers, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, talks about the deep literacy learning that comes from this creative experimentation with language, and the openness of perspective. These qualities make good readers and good writers.

At a time when immigration seems to be pissing a lot of people off, young people in immigrant classrooms are living global and transnational lives that are full of fun and creativity. Maybe instead of saying “this kids couldn’t” or “these immigrants can’t”, we should say: “these kids can…and its cool”

In my last post I told you about Rosa. She had learned some English, but to speak to her one wouldn’t sense one was speaking to a native speaker. Does it matter? I was asked this question recently at a conference after a talk I gave on multilingual neighborhoods and how they can influence the way teachers take up young people’s native languages in classroom instruction. The woman posed: I taught at a community college and these kids couldn’t…. (the rest doesn’t matter. Insert: couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t speak English well. It’s a common refrain).

I have two thoughts about her question. The first is that we need to reframe the framing. The history of education policy towards language education in the United States is fraught with contradiction. For some decades, we eliminated children and youths’ native languages as fast as we could. Research shows fairly conclusively that retaining one’s native language supports the acquisition of a second language. So when we talk about how people can’t speak English, we need to look at the ways that we have set up schooling to actually erode young people’s opportunities to learn English.

The point here is, I am bored with talking about how immigrants need to learn English. It’s a boring question.

I want to change the question.

Can we imagine a nation with multilingual citizens who have multiple kinds of linguistic competencies that keep us vibrant and contribute to a globalized economy?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. amandagulla says:

    Thank you for this. This speaks to issues I have been thinking about a lot ever since I began collaborating with an ELA teacher in an ELL school, doing arts and poetry workshops in her class and observing the way she teaches, meeting each of the students where they are. It is so incredibly rewarding, and the kids are hungry for rich conversations and ask wonderful questions and make keen observations. The poems they write are brutally, heart-wrenchingly honest.

    I love your writing and your observations, and I love that you are thinking about how much richer language can be when we all listen to each other speak. Please keep writing.


    1. I’m grateful for your encouragement Amanda! I would love to see their poetry.


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