Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Dealing With a Language Barrier

Written By: Anachan - Aug• 24•17

This year, one of my students speaks very little English.

I have had students in my classes before who learned English as a second language. For those students, vocabulary proved to be an issue, particularly at the high school level. In addition, when they wrote, sometimes their sentences would end up being structured more as Spanish sentences, rather than English sentences. It was obvious they were thinking in Spanish, then translating when they wrote. They ended up passing my classes, as long as they worked hard, accomplished their assignments and essays, and prepared for their tests.

But I have never had a student with so little English that about the only thing she would say to me in the language was to ask to go to the restroom.

I have her twice: once in algebra 1 and once in English 1.

In algebra, I have come upon a marvelous discovery: Khan Academy has a site in Spanish. It takes a bit more work for me, but I have found I can manage to get her logged on to the Spanish Khan Academy and find an exercise dealing with what we are covering in class. (I know that much Spanish, anyway!) When I discovered she was struggling with Order of Operations,  I realized that her real weakness was in manipulating negative numbers, so I was able to reassign her back to negative numbers. The smile on her face after she did some exercises, then took a quiz and got 87% on it was delightful to see. Next week, when the class starts working on combining like terms, all her assignments will be alternate ones on Khan Academy, where she can receive instruction in Spanish, as well as have Spanish language problems. At the very least, we ought to be able to make some progress in algebra. (Math is rather a universal language, once you move into symbols.)

But in English 1, I am at an impasse. This quarter, we are starting with grammar analysis. How do you get a child to be able to sort out concrete and abstract nouns when she doesn’t even know what the word means? How can a student tell if an adverb is intensive or reflexive–a distinction depending entirely on how the word is used in that particular sentence? How can a student write a required essay researching a career if she cannot read the requirements of the assignment or the online resources? Even if another student helped her work through the homework assignments, the way the class is weighted, with homework only accounting for 20% of the quarter grade, there is no way she can pass the class and gain high school credit without being able to succeed on the tests and essays.

I have never attended school in an actual foreign school, but I do know something about being lost in a sea of unfamiliar language. As a young child, I remember attempting to communicate with a German-speaking child in Austria. I couldn’t understand what she was saying as she tried to teach me how to play badminton, and I remember how helpless I felt. (Honestly, I wasn’t terribly worried at first–just ran with it–but the sight of her relatives apparently snickering at us made me self-conscious. Now, I suspect they were just smiling in that amusement adults sometimes feel when they are observing young children, but at the time, I interpreted it differently.) As a young adult, I spent a year and a half in Japan. This time, I had studied the language to one degree or another for five years, so I could manage some proficiency in reading, but I had never developed listening and speaking fluency. There were days, early on, where my mind eventually just shut off because I was so exhausted trying to process the sounds I was hearing. Because I didn’t give up and kept working on learning the skills I was lacking, I eventually developed a certain degree of fluency. But even then, there were still hours or situations in which I stared uncomprehendingly at someone because they were speaking of a subject for which I did not have the vocabulary. (Like the economics of a carton factory . . .)

Language can separate and isolate an individual. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a student to be required to be in an institution for eight hours a day and not understand the vast majority of what is going on. There are students who can speak some Spanish, but how do even they attempt to explain identifying independent and subordinate clauses in English sentences?

What this student needs, and what I know the principal is researching for her, is an actual English Language Learners class. Or a computer program. This kind of instruction is outside the scope of my English 1 class, which is designed for students already reasonably proficient in the language who need further skills in organization, analysis, and literature. I hope something can be figured out soon, for her sake.

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