Posted in Language

The Language Conundrum

In college I needed to take a full year of a language per the requirements of my English/Elementary Education major.  In high school I had taken several years of Spanish and so I said, “Spanish it shall be.”  My first semester went well.  It was an introductory course and so it was rather easy.  The teacher spoke mostly in English and translated well when she spoke in Spanish.  This isn’t too bad, I thought.  Then came the second semester.  From day one, the teacher spoke nothing but Spanish in the class.  Oh man.  It was quite challenging, but I learned a lot in that class because I needed to.  The full immersion program worked well for me.  I needed to learn the language to survive.

At my school, we have several different languages and nationalities represented. This means that we have six students in the sixth grade whose native language is not English.  As a school, our stance is, one of the reasons you are here is to learn and master the English language and so during the academic day, English is the only language spoken with the exception of the World Language classes.  This works for us.  It can be challenging for our boys though.  The start of the year is particularly difficult because some of our students have very limited English skills.  However, with more practice and being reminded to speak English throughout the academic day, they make great strides over the course of one year.

Now, one interesting caveat to all this is that some faculty members at my school try to push the use of English all the time.  We used to have a rule, “Common space, common language.”  However, over the years, this saying was abused by the students quite a bit and lost its power, which is why we’ve changed to the method mentioned above.  But, like all changes, residue from the past still lingers.  So now, some teachers try to hold the English standard all of the time, even when students are not in a common space.  Why can’t they speak their native language when it’s just a group of students who all speak the same language?  Why do we have to force English upon them all the time.  It’s hard enough to think in English during the academic day, don’t they deserve a break?  Some teachers think not.

Our ELL students need a break from English every once in awhile.  They need to be able to speak with their friends who speak the same language.  It helps them feel comfortable and safe.  It must be very challenging to be in a foreign country having to speak a new language all day long.  Taking a few minutes off each day to speak in their native language will not hurt their English language acquisition.  As a school, we need to embrace the differences while also helping these boys grow and develop.  Yes, during the academic day, they need to use English to grow and develop as learners.  However, during their free time or transition times, they should be able to speak in their native language.  For me, it’s about empathy.  If I were in their shoes, I would want a taste of safety and freedom every once in awhile too.  It’s hard work listening, thinking, and speaking in a language that is not your first language.

So, what’s the solution?  What’s the best way to address the language conundrum?  Do we allow faculty members to police the issue as they see fit or do we need to all get on board?  If we all need to be on the same page, what is that page?  Do we need to push English all the time or just during the academic day?  Is there one solution that might work better than others?  As a school, we wrestle with this each new year.  On the playing fields, can the students speak in their native language?  What about in the dining hall?  What’s right and what’s best for the students are two different things, which need to be considered when addressing the language issue.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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