Tag Archives: ELL

Caught Between Two Languages

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

Here’s a guest post from Mexico-based reporter Myles Estey…

It’s Saturday morning in the rural Mexican state of Zacatecas and we are in English class. Antonio Acosta gives basic lessons to 35 teachers. “In! Between! Over! On!” he shouts out during one exercise. English levels vary, so Acosta is reviewing some of the basics.

In the class is Nora Santana. She can speak English fine, but feels rusty, too. She’s here to feel more comfortable with the language in order to better connect with her new students, those who grew up in the United States and who are having trouble keeping up with classes in Spanish. “They feel so confused,” said Santana. “They don’t understand everything I teach in Spanish.”

Other teachers, like Eduardo García, speak very little English and hit communication walls quickly with new students, especially those now arriving unable to speak Spanish at all.

In recent years, Acosta, an education official here, has witnessed the influx of school-aged kids returning to Mexico. They arrive with their parents, who have left the United States because they are undocumented or couldn’t find work. Acosta says the kids can feel disoriented in a Mexican classroom—like foreigners, but in what is supposedly their own nation.

Now, Acosta is pioneering a project to get Mexican teachers more accustomed to English. While some believe that the money might be better spent other ways, Acosta says that English classes are critical to help teachers and their students adjust.

Mexican teachers learning English take a break from class (Photo: Myles Estey)

“If the teachers learn English, the basic English level, they are going to use this kind of tool to communicate with the children that are coming from the United States,” said Acosta.

The class is best suited for teachers like 28-year-old Ari Rodríguez.

Rodríguez says she can have a tough time communicating with some of her new students from the US and keeps English crib notes handy. She mentions one newcomer, Juan, though he goes by John in the US. He is a soft-spoken 13-year-old, who just moved here from Texas. But when you hear Juan and Rodríguez speak, it’s clear that Juan’s Spanish is improving fast.

Juan is getting good grades here, too, except in Spanish and History. He still cannot articulate his answers to his teachers. “Its kind of hard to explain it,” Juan says. “Like, when I don’t know how to say the words, I just try to explain it to them.”

But for most students, speaking isn’t the hardest part—it’s classroom comprehension.

Meet Ashley. She’s 11, and born and raised in Southern California. She just moved to Zacatecas with her parents, who were undocumented in the US. Ashley speaks Spanish perfectly, but has always done her reading and writing in English. She is struggling to read in Spanish and finds the overall transition “weird.”

Ashley’s younger brother, Yoel, is also having a hard time at it. But he’s relieved to be here with his older sister, and a cousin is here, too. Being together, speaking English in the schoolyard, it makes their new life in Mexico easier. And they keep in touch in English with their friends back in the US over Facebook.

Luis Roberto Castañeda directs Zacatecas’ Migration Institute. He says of the 13,000 or so kids who have lived in the US and are now in the Zacatecas school system, nearly all have some difficulty at school. And there are no national programs in Mexico to attend to these students’ needs. Castañeda says that when the US-born students cannot fully understand classes, they do mental translations back to English. It slows them down.

Like Castañeda, Acosta believes that his pilot project is more than learning English: It represents an effort to help US-born children feel more welcome in Mexico and tune their teachers to the fact that their students straddle two worlds.



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A grammar for cities, a dying Inuit dialect, and Frank Zappa’s lyrics

In South Korea, the grammar of urban organization is lacking a few key signifiers. I can attest to this. In 2002, I spent three weeks reporting there. Every day I got lost. Or rather, I would fail to reach my destination, because I couldn’t decode the addresses.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the numbers on most South Korean buildings have nothing to do with their location, and so have no correlation to the numbers of buildings around them. Instead, they constitute a record of  when the buildings were constructed. It’s  a chronological thing. So helpful…

It’s not just me who found this utterly impenetrable. South Koreans do too. So the government is overhauling its address system.

For more on the language of architecture, the seminal work is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Much in urban planning has changed since it was published more than three decades ago, but many in the field still swear by it.

Inuit Redux

A year ago I featured an interview with Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard. He was about to depart for Northwest Greenland, where he would live for year with an Inuktun-speaking community. He got there just in time to document and archive this rapidly vanishing language.  Now he’s back in the UK with some sobering thoughts on why the languages and culture of the Polar Inuit are faring so badly.

English Language Learning

Under US Justice Department pressure, the state of Massachusetts is revamping its training for teachers who have English Language Learners among their students.

So it’s a good time for a visit to a Massachusetts elementary school that’s become a model for teaching English to non-native speakers. More here.

Zappa’s Typist

In 1967, a young typist working for a London temp agency got the call to head over to the hotel room of a rock star. She was to type up some lyrics.

Pauline Butcher was the typist– prim and, as she says, naive.  Frank Zappa was the rock star– eccentric, bombastic, satirical, profane.

Butcher typed the lyrics accurately, when she understood them. Sometimes, when she couldn’t follow what Zappa was saying, she just made stuff up. Not surprising when you consider some of the fabulously nonsensical verses from the 1967 album Absolutely Free:

Call any vegetable, call it by name.

Call one today when you get off the train.

Call any vegetable and the chances are good

The vegetable will respond to you.

And:

And I know, I think, the love I have for you

Will never end (well maybe).

And so my love, I offer you

A love that is strong, a prune that is true.

Pauline Butcher completed the typing job. It went well.  She followed Zappa back to Southern California and worked for him for several years. She’s just written a memoir of that time.

Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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Learning in two languages, and new Zulu words

A back-to-school edition about learning in a second language. We spend some time in the classroom with fourth grade teacher Stephanie Blanco of  Gauldin Elementary School in Downey, CA to explore the challenges of teaching English language learners. ELL came to the fore after 1998, when California voters approved Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education.  In ELL classrooms,  everyone — whether they or not they are proficient in English — learns in English.

Gauldin has a good record of improving ELL students’ English skills, in marked contrast to many of the schools in neighboring Los Angeles. The situation there is so dire that the the U.S. Department of Education has launched a investigation to determine if if the Los Angeles Unified School District is violating the civil rights of English Language Learners.  The feds are also taking a look at Boston schools. (A few months ago, Carol Hills and I  discussed Arizona’s decision to penalize ELL teachers whose accents are deemed too foreign. Arizona is still defending its policy, which itself has come under federal scrutiny.)

Also in the podcast, a Creole-speaking Haitian girl newly arrived in New York City enrols in a high school, with help from a community group in Brooklyn. The girl fled Haiti after the earthquake there earlier this year. Like most Haitians, she wants to master the language and stay here permanently.  But she only has a U.S. visitor visa.Then it’s back to California as an Arabic immersion program gets underway at FAME a public charter school in Fremont, CA. Reporter Hana Baba provided us with a nice slideshow of scenes from the school, including the photo above of school founder Maram Alaiwat. Not surprisingly, many of the students at this K-10th grade school are of Arab and/or Muslim descent.  More surprising is that the school has opened its doors to the FBI. The bureau offers FAME 5th graders the chance to become “junior special agents” .

Finally, the first Zulu-English dictionary in 40 years has just been published in South Africa. Some English speakers already know a few words of Zulu (also known as isiZulu) — words like ubuntu. Zulu has also borrowed from other South African languages such as Afrikaans, and many Zulu words offer their own linguistic takes on apartheid and AIDS. We talk with the publishing manager of Oxford University Press South Africa.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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