Non-native English speakers face a life-long struggle
By Sophia Nguyen
Anja Azizaj, a freshman student at Summit Tahoma, recalled the time when she first came to America from Albania. The first day of school is always daunting, but the experience was all the more so to a kindergartner who had moved across the world to a different country. She was forced to take tests in English, a seemingly nonsensical language compared to the one she had spoken for years.
Subsequently, Azizaj could not ask for help because she did not speak English. No one could understand her, and no one could help her. Her mother would come pick her up at school because she would eventually break down in confusion. Azizaj shared about the absence of her culture in her current community, saying, “In California, there aren’t many Albanians.”
That memory might seem aged for Azizaj, but that same struggle remains for many English Language Learner students. Summit Public School: Tahoma prides itself on offering an excellent education for every student, “regardless of race, neighborhood or prior academic experience.” Tahoma freshman Alina Afroz said, “Summit Tahoma has a very diverse, supportive community of students.”
In Nov. 2016, a Los Angeles Times article stated, “Less than 5 percent of California public schools now offer multilingual programs, though there are now 1.4 million English learners.” Proposition 58 was then passed to overturn Proposition 227, which had required English learners to learn in English only. Now, schools can establish their own multilingual programs.
Summit Tahoma’s small student body consists of 340 students, approximately 16 percent of whom are not classified as proficient in English. According to the California Department of Education, 86.8 percent of ELL students in California schools speak Spanish, Vietnamese or Mandarin. Although students bring a large variety of culture and language to school, the focus of multilingual programs is simply to help students until they are proficient in English.
When asked about options Summit Tahoma offers to ELL students, Executive Director Jonathan Stewart said, “For a group of students whose English level which is still beginner or not proficient, they are placed in a special Summit Reads class with Dr. McNeil. Dr. McNeil has a PhD in language acquisition.” Tahoma freshman Yiqing Bo, who is an ELL student, said reading English material helps her in class considerably.
At Summit Tahoma, personalized learning encourages students to learn at a pace suitable for themselves. “Because this school is smaller than other schools, teacher[s] can focus on students and give more help. I also like the PLT system because I can learn by reading,” Bo said.
The close-knit community allows multilingual teachers to communicate with students. Tahoma math teacher Thao Nguyen said, “It’s fun for [students] to ask me where I’m from and connect better. Even students I don’t teach, like a junior, can ask me because we share something in common.” Teachers offer educational help, as well as support through hardships.
Non-native English speakers who teach can sympathize with the struggles ELL students feel. “In most classes, I wasn’t able to participate early, and I barely talk[ed] in front of class. It took me a long time to finish a sentence because I was still translating from Vietnamese in my head,” Ms. Nguyen said. Many non-native English speakers, teachers and students alike, have difficulties with speaking two languages due to translating.
Some multilingual people struggle with balancing their use of multiple languages and prioritize one language over another. “Sometimes, my Chinese slow down my English. Teachers always say I need to practice more English,” Bo said. For Azizaj, one solution is “speaking Albanian at home and speaking English at school.”
Many recognize the significance of multilingual options for students. The earlier approach of language immersion did bring up English proficiency at first, but multilingual education was seen differently by the time Proposition 227 passed. In the aforementioned Los Angeles Times article, the California Teachers Association president Eric Heins stated, “We are really a diverse state now, and we are participating in a worldwide economy. For our students to only know one language puts them at a disadvantage.” Proposition 227 taught English at the expense of highly valued bilingual skills.
The initial concern was the ELL students would not become English proficient. However, a Stanford report from 2014 discovered “students in English-immersion classrooms perform better than those in two-language classrooms in the early grades, but those in the two-language programs catch up to or even surpass their counterparts by middle school.” Not only do the Reclassified Fluent English Proficient students match the English Only students, but they surpass them.
Outside of school, multilingual job candidates are highly valued, especially for positions focused on translation. In addition, speaking multiple languages opens doors to professions abroad. When asked about the benefits of being bilingual, Tahoma Spanish teacher Laura Ochoa commented, “I taught in Africa, English, and I taught in Ecuador, English. When I had applied for a job, they only had Spanish available. I thought ‘I could do that,’ and I ended up loving it.”
Ms. Ochoa said, “Learning another language is a lot easier when you speak two languages.” Certain languages have similar origins and are structurally similar. A study from the Science Daily journal found “fluency and skills in one language assist in the language acquisition of a second language, and possessing skills in two languages can boost the learning process of a third language.”
For Azizaj, one advantage is being able to communicate with family. Azizaj said, “My mom has a heavy accent, so it’s difficult when she talks. My dad doesn’t want to speak English so my sister and I don’t forget Albanian.” For families who emigrate, it is crucial to keep in touch with their culture, particularly so when they leave behind lives in different countries. “I think it was a good idea to move to America because the system over in Albania is very corrupted,” Azizaj said.
Many see America as the epitome of high-quality education. Ms. Ochoa said, “My parents grew up in a third-world country, so it was very poor. America and Mexico are totally different places.” Students choose education in America for advantages they would not have in other countries. “When I was young, I was always curious how the American education system looked like,” Ms. Nguyen said.
When asked why she chose to teach in America, Ms. Nguyen said, “In the future, I want to go back to Vietnam at some point and bring back what I learned from America and apply that in Vietnam and see if that helps the students in Vietnam. In Vietnam, the students study very hard but the society is very far behind despite the fact that the students study harder than students in America.” ELL students and teachers have the opportunity to share what they learn between multiple communities.
In return, everyone in the community supports each other to help ELL students. This is especially important in California, where there is a large multilingual community. Bo explained one way peers and teachers could help, saying, “Maybe [have] some more explanation because sometimes, when they first say, I don’t understand.” The acceptance and support of non-native English speakers is essential for younger generations.
The administration’s actions against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have greatly impacted the ELL community. As a result, many people will lose opportunities, and America will lose many hopefuls. In an article from the New York Times, Vanessa Luna stated, “‘We’re going to lose leaders and lose teachers — it’s not only their presence, but having a teacher tha[t] can share the same experiences that you possibly had growing up,’” People directly affected by DACA bring variety to San Jose.
The presence of diverse and unique individuals allows Summit Tahoma and San Jose to develop as future generations flourish. Afroz said, “Many people who attend Tahoma are bilingual, which makes a friendly environment for all students to have a successful high school time.” Teachers have a fundamental role in creating an environment for success. Ms. Nguyen shared her goal as a teacher, saying, “ I want to help the next generation.”