Teaching English as a Second Language in US Schools

As more and more immigrants are coming into the United States, one of the biggest responsibilities for American educators is how to teach English to students with a different home language so they may function in American society. However, not all educators agree on how this task should best be approached, and most educators utilize one of two approaches: English immersion or bilingual education programs. In English immersion programs, students do not use their home language as part of the curriculum; they are taught in English and expected to use only English from the first day of instruction. Bilingual education programs, though varying in nature, utilize the students’ home language either as a resource for teaching English or until students’ English is considered advanced enough that they no longer “need” their home language as support.

In their article “Reading and Language Outcomes of a Multiyear Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education,” Robert E. Slavin et al. argue that the type of English education students receive does not matter as much as the quality of education they receive. They came to this conclusion based on results of five tests – two which did not require any comprehension from students, but only the ability to make sound-letter correspondence – given to Spanish-speaking elementary school learners of English. Their findings showed that after five years, students in transitional bilingual education programs (which gradually shift students into English-only classrooms) scored the same as students in standard English immersion programs in both Spanish and English proficiencies.

Barnett et al., however, disagree: they argue in “Two-way and monolingual English immersion in preschool education: An experimental comparison” that dual-language bilingual education programs are more beneficial to students than standard English immersion programs because they develop English and the home language. They administered eleven different tests throughout the study period of one academic year (some of these tests were performed more than once); three tests measured sound-letter correspondence and pronunciation, four measured cognitive ability, and four measured classroom environment. Their findings showed that both programs lead to similar English improvement, but English immersion programs did so at the expense of the home language, Spanish, which was contrastingly improved through dual-language programs.

Slavin et al.’s assertion that the quality of education is very important is correct, but “quality” of education can mean very different things to different people. Barnett et al. measured various aspects of the learning environment, which is valuable because learning does not occur in a vacuum, but in “the real world,” where learning should be enjoyable and students should feel valued. This is also why it is important for students’ home languages to be developed in school – students are not just English learners, but also bilinguals, and their identity as such should be recognized and utilized. Even though Slavin et al. found that students’ Spanish was the same through both transitional bilingual education and standard English immersion, it is important to remember that elementary-level Spanish vocabulary can often be easily acquired in the community, especially if that community consists of a large Hispanic population; beyond elementary school, students will need to acquire more difficult vocabulary that they would be much less likely to experience by chance in their community. Spanish should not be treated as a “home language” that will be developed outside of school, but as a valid language students possess that contributes to their knowledge and identity. What is considered “quality” education is debatable, but it would seem that an environment allowing students to feel like their home life can contribute to who they are and what they know would constitute as “high quality.”

Slavin et al. only consider two options – transitional bilingual education or standard English immersion – but Barnett et al.’s study proves that there is at least one more option – dual-language bilingual education. Educators should not feel limited to choose between English-only programs or programs that ultimately result in English-only. American educators constantly stress the need for American-born, English-speaking students to be bilingual, so why do they deny students who are learning English this right? Barnett et al. show that utilizing and developing the home language does not hinder English acquisition, and, in fact, develops the home language, leading to the bilingualism that educators want and expect from other students. Students should be able to use whatever resources they possess without being shamed for it or being labeled as “English learners” – a term which, in itself, suggests that students will never truly be speakers of English, but always lesser than their English-native peers.

Works Cited

Barnett, William S., et al. “Two-way and monolingual English immersion in preschool education: An experimental comparison.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, 2007, pp. 277-293.

Slavin, Robert E., et al. “Reading and Language Outcomes of a Multiyear Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 33, no. 1, 2011, pp. 47-58.

Defining “Fluent”

Part of learning a language is the expectation that one will become fluent. However, there is no way to accurately determine when one is fluent in a language because the definition of the term “fluent” is heavily debated. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one is fluent when he or she is “capable of using a language easily and accurately” and when his or her language is “effortlessly smooth and flowing.” This definition is highly problematic, though, because native speakers of a language do not always speak accurately, nor is their language always “effortlessly smooth,” so it is important to consider how linguistic experts define fluency.

Donovan Nagel, an Applied Linguistics specialist, argues that fluency is being “able to use (one’s) target language to learn more target language,” or being able to define an unknown word in the target language so that a native speaker is able to respond with the word (Mezzofanti). However, it is often difficult to define certain words by using other words, even in one’s native language. I often resort to hand motions or pictures if I cannot recall a word, so am I not fluent in English? Similarly, Kris Broholm defines being fluent in a language as the ability to “conduct yourself exclusively in that language,” but it is again important to consider that often people have to resort to non-verbal skills to get their point across because they cannot express themselves even through their native language (qtd. in Krzeminska). Broholm’s claim is supported by Luca Sadurny, who argues that fluency is “the ability to express yourself in a language without even thinking about what you need to do in order to keep going” (qtd. in Krzeminska). However, there are many times when I must think about my word choice and sentence structure when I speak English, so by Sadurny’s definition, I would not be fluent. The definitions presented thus far have all focused on language skills that even native speakers of a language may not possess in all situations, so they should not be considered the best ways to define fluency.

A less strict definition comes from Siskia Lagomarsino, who suggests fluency is “understanding and being understood in a context of your very own” (qtd. in Krzeminska). Fluency is goal-dependent, and people can experience different types of fluency without experiencing other types. An example is provided by Jim Cummins, who notes the difference between BICS, basic interpersonal communicative skills (conversational fluency), and CALP, cognitive academic language proficiency (academic fluency), and recognizes that these are just two examples of fluency types. Fluency cannot be measured as one ultimate category, but must be broken down because “fluency is domain dependent” (Max Hodges qtd. in Krzeminska). The context in which a person uses a language determines whether or not they are fluent. This is true even in one’s native language; for example, not everyone is fluent in medical language or computer language, but it does not mean they are not fluent in another area of their native language. It is up to the person speaking to determine whether or not they are able to communicate effectively for his or her own goals, because fluency cannot accurately be measured and “it’s truly in the eye of the beholder” (Benny Lewis, qtd. in Krzeminska).

 

References

Cummins, Jim. “BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction.” In Street, B. & Hornberger, N. H. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd Edition, Volume 2: Literacy (2008): 71-83. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

“Fluent.” Mirriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fluent

Krzeminska, Marta. “What is fluency in a language?” LinguaLift, https://www.lingualift.com/blog/what-is-fluency/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Mezzofanti [Donovan Nagel]. “Fluency in a Language – What Does That Mean Exactly?” The Mezzofanti Guild, http://www.mezzoguild.com/being-fluent-in-your-target-language/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Summary of a Classical Proposal

In Enemies of Promise, J. Michael Bishop argues that science must be trusted and accepted by nonscientists in order to advance and to benefit society. Bishop begins by noting people may distrust science for a number of reasons, including religion, the belief that science is politically motivated, and the belief that science has reached its limits. Though Bishop acknowledges the contributions other fields, such as literature or philosophy, make to human knowledge and advancement, he argues the perspective science provides is unique in that it breaks things down so they can be understood as a whole. Because people expect science to be able to accomplish more than what is possible, such as cure societal problems, they are unable to see that science itself cannot fix everything; instead, society must implement scientific findings to obtain the results they are seeking. Bishop provides the example of vaccines that science has provided but society has not made available to all citizens; once science has provided the knowledge necessary for something to be done, society itself is responsible for actually using that knowledge to make a difference. Further demonstrating a common misunderstanding of science, many people expect scientists’ efforts to always be successful because of past scientific accomplishments, but science is unpredictable and results cannot be forced.  When scientists do not achieve the results the public want, they are cast in a negative light and portrayed as the enemy in the media; however, the media does not portray the entire situation to the public, nor do they mention the steps scientists have made towards advancements. There is also a fear of science caused by public ignorance partially caused by inadequate science education in schools. Yet, even scientists are often uneducated on fields outside of their specialty, so it is unrealistic to expect the general public to be fully aware. It is scientists’ responsibility to make the first step in educating the general public by educating themselves and showing that science has high risks, but also high rewards.

Literary Response to Nora Okja Keller’s “Ghost Stories”

Through Ghost Stories, Nora Okja Keller recalls her experiences with ghosts and her struggle to truly believe they exist, even after having experiences that would suggest they are real. The rest of Keller’s family believe strongly in ghosts, claiming the ghosts that visit are actually family members who watch over them and provide a sense of comfort to them. Keller comes to the conclusion that these “ghosts” also provide strength and comfort to her – not in a physical sense, but as memories and as the history of her family to which she can connect.

Keller expresses a sense of peace and comfort with her family “ghosts,” even though she does not believe in their physical presence. She recognizes the sense of security the ghosts provided for her mother during her separation from her homes, noting that “it must have comforted her to invoke the invisible family that was always watching out, always the same and always there for her no matter how far she traveled from home” (Keller 12). Though Keller believes the ghosts were not physically present to support her mother, she recognizes the peace of mind her mother felt by believing the ghosts were indeed there. The one experience Keller had as a child in which she expressed potential belief in the ghosts also provided a sense of security to her sister and herself: “My sister and I felt better, safe and comforted… because, even so far from our home in Hawai’i, our ghosts knew how to find us and came to visit” (Keller 10). Keller also recognizes the mental strength the ghosts provide to herself – the stories of her family influenced who she is, and she remarks “I know the spirits are there by the words that appear on my screen,” a bold statement that seems to contradict her earlier stance, unless the ghosts are understood to simply be memories (Keller 14).

Understanding where we come from allows us to feel a connection to who we are, and similarly, we live on through those who survive us. Keller’s desire to connect with the ghosts of her family evokes a sense of empathy, because it is understandable that she would be wary about believing in what she cannot see, but it is sad that the rest of her family seems connected while she is not. Her uncertainty, even after experiences with what her family claims were ghosts, and the distress it causes her is apparent by the way she refers to herself as “the daughter who cannot fully believe any ghost story” and “the one who had trouble understanding” (Keller 13). Her lack of faith in some way separates her from her family, because it separates her from her history and culture and the strength they can offer; however, Keller’s perception of the ghosts as memories ultimately provides her with the strength and connection for which she is searching. She also expresses her desire for her daughter to one day also feel that kind of connection, noting “when I write, I envision the woman my daughter will one day become and know that I am whispering stories to that ghost of her future self” (Keller 14).

 

TV with Dad

Being in college 4000 miles away from home has taught me the importance of spending time with my family when I can. Even before I left for school, my family would often watch TV together; we never really had the money to go out and do things, and even if we did, my dad is disabled so it’s difficult for him to go out and do many activities. Even when my dad is alone, he often watches TV because his seizures prevent him from working or driving, so there’s not much else he can do. Over the past few years, my dad has found himself alone quite a bit, though – my sister moved out, my mom works twelve-to-fourteen-hour shifts, and I’m at school. I only work part-time in the summer, so luckily I get to spend most of the day with my dad, and though I’m often able to drive us places to do other things, we’re sometimes stuck at home, so we once again find ourselves watching TV.

Often, the only things we have to watch are shows I have downloaded onto my laptop. This means cramming onto the couch next to a little desk trying to share an eleven-inch screen. Obviously this isn’t extremely comfortable, but it still ends up being one of the most enjoyable ways to spend time together. A lot of the shows I have are Korean variety shows, and it’s nice to be able to share my interests with my dad, especially because my parents don’t have a lot of exposure to Korean language or culture in my hometown. Last summer we watched a show about a boy band vacationing at a small island off the Korean peninsula, and my dad commented that it would be cool to visit somewhere like that. Hearing him express interest made me realize that one day in the future, I could maybe take him and my mom to visit Korea, especially if I end up living there. Seeing my dad branch out and watch things he had never considered is nice, especially because it helps him understand my interests.

I also learn a lot about his interests by watching things he likes. Though we already shared much of our music taste, the music documentaries we often watch gives me a greater appreciation for bands he enjoys and what it was like for him to grow up with them. We also watch a lot of concert DVDs for these bands, and every summer we end up watching Journey: Live in Manila. It’s nice to see my dad so enthusiastic about music, and I appreciate that he shares this enthusiasm with me so that we can be closer and better understand each other.