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Adventures in English Learning, or How I Drowned My 'Speak & Spell'

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By Arun Ramanathan

My father wanted me to learn English.  He spoke five languages but there was only one that mattered when it came to his children's education.  English was the proverbial key to the kingdom: success in school and western society.  When the local school asked my parents to focus on English, they stopped speaking to us in our native language.

speak_and_spell_11.jpgTo my parents chagrin, I wasn't the best student.  I enjoyed reading comic books but the other parts of English language development bored the hell out of me.  Writing and spelling were particularly problematic.  To fix this, my father invested in a variety of approaches including one of the earliest forms of instructional technology: an ugly red gadget with massive keyboard called a Speak and Spell.  True to its name, it would "speak" words in a horrible mechanical voice, which I would then attempt to spell correctly on the keyboard.  I hated it with a passion and one day, accidentally drowned it in the bathtub. 

The Lord of the Flies Moment

Eventually, my lack of English proficiency caught up to me.  Like all seventh graders in America and quite possibly the universe, I was forced to read Lord of the Flies.  The book was bad enough but I also had to write a five-paragraph essay about the plot.  There were several problems with this assignment.  First, I had never written an essay before. Second, my understanding of the word "plot" came from the comic book world—as in "a devious plot to take over the universe."  

After dinner, I pulled out a pencil and paper and started writing.  An hour later I had crumpled up twenty sheets of paper and written three sentences.  For the next seven hours, I sat there, desperately trying to put words together.  Every fifteen minutes, my father's grandfather clock would chime, adding to my desperation.  By five a.m., I had written two pages about a "plot" in the Lord of the Flies.  It was my absolute best effort and I turned it in, thinking I'd done pretty well. 

The next day, my teacher gave it back.  The first thing I noticed was the red marks on every line.  The second thing I noticed was the F.

There's nothing more soul-crushing than realizing that your absolute best effort is an abject failure.  Of course, at that point I had nowhere to go but up.

Over time, I learned to write a five-paragraph essay and more.  In fact, the same teacher who gave me that F spent the following summer tutoring me in English.  Still, whenever the subject of learning English comes up, I remember that long night, the blank sheet of paper and chiming clock.

The Tradeoffs of 'English Only'

I know that my experience isn't unique.  In fact there's probably some kid in our state feeling the same way right now.  English, like my father said, is the key to the kingdom and without it you can't even get through the first door.  My proficiency with the language has given me many opportunities over the years.  At the same time, like many English learners, this proficiency was achieved at a cost. It wasn't just my struggles with writing and spelling.  As a young boy, I lost the language of my family and culture. Now, this may seem like a reasonable trade-off given how far I've come in my life.  But I have also lived a million lost opportunities that weigh on the other side of that scale.  I cannot speak to my grandmother. I could not hold her hand and comfort her in her own language as my grandfather died.  How do I calculate the cost of that one lost moment against all of these great opportunities I've had over the years? 

Now, I don't question my parents for their choices.  They did what they thought was best and now that I am a father I understand the complexity of their decisions.  When my wife, who is Spanish speaking, and I had the choice, we placed our girls in Spanish dual immersion school.  But many of our friends and relatives made different choices for their kids.  We do not judge.  Language is one of the most gut-wrenching choices a parent has to make.  What other issue encompasses education, opportunity, culture, religion, community and family? 

Illogic of Language Wars

I do however question our education system and the logic of the camps in the long-running language wars.  This complexity never seems to be acknowledged.  On one side I hear the proponents for English immersion.  On the other are the longtime advocates for bilingual education.  When I listen to them, I feel like I'm trapped in a time warp.

Immersion proponents seem to believe that a child can learn English and every other subject just by being exposed to the language.  This doesn't make any sense.  Learning a new language doesn't happen by osmosis.  It has to be taught.  

Further, why would we teach subjects like math or science in English to kids who don't speak English?  Math concepts are the same in English, Spanish, Chinese and every other language.  If my child learns better in Spanish, I would want her to learn math in Spanish so she doesn't fall behind.

Similarly, proponents of the traditional bilingual model often argue that it's the best way to learn English.  I am a firm supporter of bilingualism.  But I also know that this logic does not resonate with immigrant parents who want their children to learn English because they, like my father, see it as the key to future educational and job opportunities.

Getting Unlabeled Is Hard

Our current system for English Learners doesn't make sense to me either.  Getting labeled an English Learner is ridiculously easy.  If a parent checks a box on an enrollment form that they speak another language at home, their kid is labeled an EL.  To get the label taken off, your child has to jump through not one but multiple hoops including a subjective teacher recommendation.  

As a result, some kids remain English Learners until they graduate from high school.  Now, some folks argue that the problem is that these students didn't get sufficient support, and they may be right.  But there is a clear point in secondary school where the label itself closes off educational opportunities and the "support" may actually be counter-productive.  If your child is still EL in middle school, she'll get tracked into lower level ELD courses and never have a chance to go to college.  Why would I want that for my kid?

No wonder some immigrant parents actually lie on their enrollment forms and say they speak English at home.  Too many of them have been treated as second-class citizens in this country.  They put up with it because they came here to give their children a better life, starting with a first class education.  They will do anything to avoid having their kids trapped in a second-class education system, even if it means forgoing academic supports their children need to learn English.

Parents Shouldn't Have To Lie

This shouldn't be happening.  Parents shouldn't have to lie and students shouldn't lose essential supports as a result.  Children shouldn't have to lose their primary link to their culture and community just to learn English.  Students shouldn't be classified as EL until middle and high school and never get a chance to go to college.  And multilingualism should be the rule not the exception.

If we really want to address these issues, we need to deconstruct our system for educating English Learners.  We could start by stepping outside the language debates and having a real dialogue with parents of English Learners about their hopes and dreams for their families and children.  We should listen, learn and then start building the system they want for their children instead of the system that we think their children need.

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(Arun Ramanathan leads Pivot Learning Partners, a state-wide education non-profit that partners with over 90 of California school districts to support their efforts to improve leadership development, education finance and teaching and learning.)

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