By JESSE SCACCIA
How badly do we actually want our English as a Second Language students to learn English?
A parent in Arizona has argued, “Notta mucho,” and her case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Federal law requires that public schools teach children to speak English. According to this story on NPR, a student (and their parent) can sue a district if they think not enough funds are going toward making the student “English-proficient and fully competitive.” This particular parent is arguing that the $150 (as of 2000) spent on her child just isn’t enough.
Of course, if the Supreme Court hears a case, it means the issue is a pretty darn big deal. It made me wonder, why is this issue so critical? Does it matter if we all speak the same language? Isn’t there possibly something latently racist in that? Do we need to teach all our students English?
As I’ve written about before, I am currently working at a home for young men in Cape Town. This very multi-racial home is run by English speakers, but is populated by Xhosa speaking blacks and Afrikaans-first coloured young men. Given South Africa’s infamous history of xenophobia, institutionalized racism, and, in general, people not hearing each other, I decided to ask some of the folks here what they thought about the issue.
“Without English, how are we going to live together?” asked Nosipho, the house administrator and everyone’s big sister. “I don’t understand Afrikaans. If that’s all they’re speaking, how will I understand them?”
So obviously, we need to know the same set of words to understand each other. But what about understanding each other.
“One of the main reasons for racism in schools is (the students) talking in their own languages,” said Ryan, a counselor from American who has lived here nine years. “Because separating by language naturally separates them by race. This leads to paranoia between the groups.”
So if speaking separate languages leads to racism (as I think it almost inevitably does), then we need to have a common language in our schools. But what is the emotional cost to the second language learner? How does it feel to not understand what is being said around you?
Clinton, who at 16 just started learning English three years ago, thinks life would be better if everyone was allowed to speak their own language.
“(Making us speak English in schools) makes life harder. Why can’t we speak our own language?” he wondered.
In my experience with ESL students both in the States and here, learning English can be an emasculating process. Your verbally expressed thoughts go from complicated and elegant to the confinement of simple sentences with elementary words. Being from a different culture, you’re labeled as different in the first place, which makes life hard enough.
It is easy to understand why someone like Clinton would rather just fluently speak his own language. He’s right, in some way: Why should he be forced to speak the white man’s language?
In America, one could argue that if the Latin students are learning English, the American-born kids should be learning Spanish. That would be beautifully non-racial, wouldn’t it?
“Everyone should have to learn in a second language,” said the home’s director, an American named Lindsay. “Grades are an evaluation of language ability, then aptitude.”
But it isn’t so easy to get the dominant language speakers to learn what, to be real, is “the poor man’s” language. The impetus simply isn’t there.
“It’s hard for white people to learn our language,” said the 50-something-year-old Xhosa chef, Momma D. “It is easy for us to learn theirs.”
The reason for this goes beyond arrogance or a lack of language aptitude. As said Bobby Joe, a 24-year-old from Tanzania, English is the “budget language.”
“It’s so easy to learn English. You just turn on the television, you talk to anyone around you,” he said. “To learn any other language costs thousands. English is free. It’s charity.”
The reasons that getting all students speaking fluent, confident English are too many to ignore: it is nearly essential in most careers paths; it helps minimize racism; it lets one understand their world. Here’s to the Supreme Court using all its powers to help our ESL students get on level ground with our American-born kids.
Maybe Jacobus put it best. A coloured 17-year-old, he was talking about South Africa, but he could have been speaking about how all of us sometimes feel in the world.
“We all are foreigners here,” he said. “So it’s good for the community that we speak English.”