ELL students overcome cultural and language barriers to find community in foreign environments.
With 2,021 students, 190 personnel and 423 rooms in one building, it is easy for a former janitorial-closet-turned-classroom to go unnoticed. Tucked in the walls between the studies wing and the main commons resides the English Language Learner (ELL) classroom.
Through its always-open door, passers by catch a glimpse of white walls with photographs of former students posed in front of a paper watering can cut out attached to the pink, green and yellow poster boasting ELL spelled out on the flowers. A timeless fixture in the ever evolving environment, it reads “Sprouting seeds of success.”
An American flag hangs next to the SmartBoard, the Pledge of Allegiance written in black on its faded white stripes. Students sit in a circle of desks facing the center of the classroom while Lilia Ben Ayed, the ELL 2 and 3 teacher, moves among them answering questions about everything from factoring equations to American College Test (ACT) preparation. Students focus on their studies as charts of past- and present-tense verb conjugations hang from cabinet doors, supporting them through their classes and conversations.
In the 2014-15 school year 4.1 percent of 12th graders in public schools were ELL students with lower grades and kindergarten students reaching as high as 16.7 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). During this same time, the most common home languages ELL students spoke included Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese. Ben Ayed experiences teaching “newcomers” English firsthand. For many of these students, her class is their first formal exposure to the language.
The biggest problem that I’ve faced is like the slangs in English because they don’t teach us English slangs in China.”
In Ben Ayed’s ELL 2 class, there are seven students from six different countries: Rwanda, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Congo and Myanmar/Burma. With such a diverse array of languages, she depends heavily on Total Physical Response (TPR) to instruct her students. In the beginning of the year, Ben Ayed uses facial gestures, body movements and pointing to objects to interact with her class.
“Usually after [a] few weeks their English will improve,” Ben Ayed said. “[Then] we’ll communicate using short sentences instead of just hand gestures.”
Some of her students who are in what Ben Ayed calls the “silent period” don’t speak at all, so she relies solely on physical communication. The “silent period” can last six weeks or longer depending on the student, according to Colorin Colorado, a site aimed at educating the parents and teachers of ELL students. Ben Ayed said “not wanting to be in the country or not wanting to learn the language” influences how long a student stays in this period. Some of her students, especially those who were displaced from their countries, resist assimilating to and adopting American culture.
Juniors Mina Yoon, a South Korea native, and Haiming Guo, from China, are both part of the ELL program. Since they are non-native English speakers, they understand the struggles of ELL students trying to acclimate to the constant exposure to English in both academic and social settings on a deeply personal level.
“The biggest problem that I’ve faced is like the slangs in English because they don’t teach us English slangs in China,” Guo said. “So my first day at Rock Bridge, let’s say, [a] ‘random dude’ came [up] to me and said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ And I got so confused, and I don’t understand it. So I look up and I said, ‘Nothing’s up there.’ It was so embarrassing. And then I thought that [it] might be a way of saying ‘how are you’ or ‘how are you doing,’ and I said, ‘I’m fine.’ It just was–it’s just hard for me.”
Without consistent, effective access to language instruction for English, ELL students are often unfamiliar with the variety of slangs used in everyday speech. Through exposure to social language by means of conversation with friends and peers, students acquire more extensive vocabularies. Becoming fluent in a foreign language takes years, and even then a student’s vocabulary may not be complete.
“Sometimes you just feel retarded.”
Language is not the only area ELL students are unfamiliar with when they come to the United States, and navigating the tumultuous waters of high school presents a problem for even the most experienced of sailors. Guo’s experience at RBHS has been nothing like what he thought it would be after watching movies about American high schools during the 14 hour plane trip from China to the United States. Guo said he was terrified because he would see nerds being stuffed into lockers and trapped until someone came along to rescue them. Luckily for Guo, this has not been his experience so far.
Still, culture shocks, such as seeing five or six students smoking in the chemistry hall’s men’s bathroom, have become commonplace in his high school experience. Even after almost two years in this country, Guo tries to wrap his head around how students spend time socializing in class instead of doing their assigned work. Even more baffling to him are the ones who vandalize school property.
“[Some male students] go to the bathroom with markers, and they write or draw some stupid propaganda like, ‘You will not take my guns’ [or] ‘South will rise again,’” Guo said. “[It’s] just [so confusing] to me. Like, where do you find the time in the bathroom [to do this]? It’s just so funky.”
While Yoon did not grow up in America, she said this is her third time coming to Columbia, and her older brother was even born here. The first time her family came to the United States was when her father was working to get his PhD. The second time they returned so Yoon could learn English and experience American culture. When Yoon was in first grade at Fairview Elementary School, she watched “High School Musical” for the first time and became obsessed.
“I thought high schools [were] going to be huge and people can do whatever they want, like freedom, stuff like that,” Yoon said. “But it wasn’t really like what I imagined, what I expected.”
Coming from China to America, Guo romanticized the country and its inhabitants, especially American politics and democracy. His experience with American movies, television and stand-up comedy only fueled his fantasy of the Western world.
“Before I came here, I thought ‘America is paradise,’” Guo said. “There’s no racism, and people are just nice. They’re the greatest human beings in the world.”
“I thought high schools [were] going to be huge and people can do whatever they want, like freedom, stuff like that. But it wasn’t really like what I imagined, what I expected.”
Similar to Guo and countless others before him, Yoon and her family moved to the United States most recently in search of opportunity and a better life. Sadly, in Yoon’s case, Guo’s infatuation with America was short lived when she started school in America last year.
“It was my second day of school I think, [maybe my] first day. I don’t know. But I was walking in the hallway, and a guy came up to me and he said, like, ‘Hey, your accent sucks.’ It was in school, and I was like, ‘Okay…’ and I ignored him, and I walked away,” Yoon said. “But I felt so, like, [hurt]. I knew that I had a thick accent, and I still have it. But people can understand what I’m talking about, like what I’m saying, so I didn’t care. But is it really that bad? I have no idea. He just came up to me.”
Because of their limited English skills, Ben Ayed said many of her ELL students are “very self conscious, and most of them do not contribute to any class discussions” because of how they sound. For “newcomers,” she said it takes at least a year to adjust to a classroom setting depending on the student’s personality.
With the language barrier ELL students face, they often struggle to communicate as clearly and as articulate as they would like.
“Sometimes you just feel retarded,” Guo said. “You feel like the teachers in studies class, even ELL teachers, they treat you like [you’re] retarded.”
Guo is not alone in his frustration and embarrassment. Ben Ayed said ELL students sometimes shut down because of these emotions, or they are too afraid to ask a question and instead remain silent. One struggle she notices her students experience is catching transition cues and finishing classwork. Speaking the language and understanding cultural normalities go hand-in-hand to communicate effectively. As Yoon learned through her time in America, waving to a friend is a common gesture, though when she first saw the gesture she thought it was rude.
Part of Ben Ayed’s job is to educate students on social and academic vocabulary to help them engage in the classroom and with their peers. She first became interested in teaching English to ELL students after seeing how translating word problems into Arabic and French, her first languages, as a math teacher improved their scores.
“Social language is language the students use with their friends [and] at home, and the academic language is the language they have to use in their writing,” Ben Ayed said. “We have to focus on that.”
We’re sometimes afraid of asking questions, so I think we have to have more courage to ask [about] what we don’t know.”
Classrooms can only teach ELL students so much about the English language, so they need social interaction to reinforce their communication skills. In Yoon’s experience she is learning English slang and social vocabulary from speaking with her friends but struggles with the language used in her American history class. Unlike her classmates, Yoon lacks even basic knowledge of U.S. history, topics, words and events that may have been taught to students in elementary and middle school. Along with history, Yoon is taking anatomy and physiology, each of which have their own unique vocabularies.
“I know all those terms, like [the body] systems, in my first language, but I don’t know any of them in English,” Yoon said. “So I have to translate each vocabs, like every single vocabs. There’s like 50 vocabs in a unit, and I have to translate all of them. And it takes [a] long time and I have to memorize all of them.”
The ability to formulate ideas into words quickly and accurately inhibits fast paced communication among native English speakers and ELL students. Both Yoon and Guo said it is important for others to be patient and listen with the intent to understand when they speak in order to comprehend what non-native English speakers mean.
“We’re sometimes afraid of asking questions,” Yoon said. “So I think we have to have more courage to ask [about] what we don’t know.”
Around the first week of school, Ben Ayed said she records a conversation with her students. They are aware they are being recorded but don’t know what it is for. Then, at the end of the semester, she and the student conference, listening to the same recording.
“I get really amazed at the growth in their pronunciation, in their speaking. So many successful [stories]. So many kids came through this room and [started with] no language,” Ben Ayed said. “And then really after a year, or even it takes years to really grow and be and speak [and] read and write as proficient[ly] as a native speaker. It takes time.”
“It’s like you lost your strength.”
Even with all the growth ELL students go through while in the program, they sacrifice part of their personalities in the process of mastering a new language. Guo said he used to be a trash-talker back in China during middle school, but the language barrier doesn’t allow his true sense of humor to come through when he speaks. Like other ELL students across the country, Guo and Yoon are forced to use their second language so friends and teachers can understand them, watching stand-up comedy, TV shows, films and news programs to improve their social vocabularies.
“It’s like you lost your strength,” Guo said.
Guo and Yoon are not the first students to be overwhelmed by the discrimination and daunting language barriers present in American society, and they will certainly not be the last. Ben Ayed’s wall of former students features children who left their own countries as refugees and immigrants to come to the United States in hope of creating a better life. They struggled to read, write and speak, but they persisted and eventually acclimate to the culture, making friends and becoming independent young adults along the way.
“I just got an email from a student asking me to write him a letter of recommendation because he’s studying to be a teacher,” Ben Ayed said. “It’s awesome to see them successful. A lot of our students pursue a college degree. For some of them it takes longer than a regular student, but a lot of them want to be successful and it’s really awesome to see them successful.”
What culture shocks have you experienced in your life? Let us know in the comments below.