One Language is Never Enough…?

One of my favorite bloggers about ELL and ESL students, Ms. Flecha, recently wrote the following on her blog:

“(My students) often want to write in their first language, and they speak in it regularly. Speaking in one’s first language when appropriate is actually one of the “rights” I have posted in the class. It’s been up since September, but I feel the kids are starting now to become aware of its meaning and significance. Other teachers have told me that their students mention to them that my kids have a right to speak in their first language in class.”

While I am a lover of languages – both hearing them and learning them – I must admit that this rationale goes against something I’ve been steadfast about since the beginning of my career. With the preponderance of Spanish speakers in my class (and school), it isn’t unexpected for students to abandon their English in favor of Spanish when they are conversing with their friends during down time (say, before lunch).

I instinctively react when I hear languages other than English in my classroom. I always, however, preface my words with the caveat that I love the Spanish language. I remind my students that I speak it myself, and I enjoy it plenty. (They know about my love for languages and know I have phrases from several different languages. I’ve also involved them in my efforts to learn Greek from my colleagues.) Then I tell my students (whoever was speaking Spanish) why I want them to speak English: I know they know how to use Spanish, and that they’ve been speaking it their whole lives. In school, however, our goal is to improve as speakers and communicators of English. Therefore, English should be the language used in the classroom.

I am not the only one who expresses this viewpoint upon hearing Spanish (or Chinese, or whatever language other than English). Several of my colleagues say they also ‘catch’ students speaking in their native tongues and discourage it.

Now, given Ms. Flecha’s post, I am reconsidering my stance. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between her class, which by her account, sounds like a veritable United Nations, and mine. Her students are all fairly new to the country and speak their language primarily because it is the only language they truly know. My students were all born in the United States, except for five, and therefore have been educated in English since kindergarten, for the most part.

Ms. Flecha issues the exception to her rule for allowance of using one’s native language in the classroom. She says it is permissible “when appropriate.” For some of her students, I’d imagine it’s an issue of necessity. Surely the newest students are not equipped with the skills to communicate in English, and they, I’d imagine, require the assistance of their peers for translation. 

My students do not need each other to translate, and therefore when they speak in their native language, it seems to be for one of two reasons. Very likely, students naturally slip into what’s most comfortable for them. I have trouble appreciating this, though, because, as indicated earlier, these children have been learning in an English-speaking environment for years. The other possibility I can venture is that they are trying to sneak – or should I say ‘speak’ – something past me. It won’t work for the Spanish speakers, and this particular group of Chinese speakers wouldn’t try to dupe me.

What is it then? I can’t put a finger on it. I’m not sure how I feel about the unstructured use of languages other than English in my room. Given free reign, I imagine the class would default to speaking in their first language, except for the most confident ones. What would be the result? Some students would quietly and exclusively speak in their original language, others would stick it out with English. In the end, it seems to me such a system – in my class – would retard their growth as users of the English language, particularly because they do not usually get to practice it at home.

I will say this, however. I had the need today to communicate with a group of Chinese speakers in another class. I asked one of my Chinese speakers to help me by translating. He did, and at the end, I thanked him using the only Chinese phrase I learned this year, “thank you”: “Xie xie” (pronounced “shieh shieh”). He replied in Chinese, and not knowing what he was saying – but wanting to know – I asked him to write it for me. He did with a proud smile on his face and taught me the words for “you’re welcome”: “Bu you xie.”

I was happy. If anything, today I was able to reassess the role language plays in identity. How I approach it from here, I haven’t determined. But, hey, I’ve got a snow day – an opportunity to consider this – tomorrow, and for this, I have just one thing to say:

Xie xie!

3 responses to “One Language is Never Enough…?

  1. Pingback: Balancing English & First Languages in the ESL Class « My Life Untranslated

  2. i feel that they should speak in english!!… there is a lack of english being spoken in the us.. im totally for a national language in this country.. so promoting the use of english in your classroom should be done.. how else are they going to learn if they dont speak it..

  3. Pingback: Month in Review: Feb. 2010 « The World As I See It

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