Speaking in [Many] Tongues

Notes from a retired E.L.L. teacher.

full disclosure from Anouck: While my mother was here visiting over the holidays, she and I spoke about her time as an English Language Learner teacher (the program was then called English as a Second Language). She recently retired and she was reflecting back on some common problems that arose, in her classroom, between her students and other teachers, and in the greater in the education system. I asked her if she would be kind enough to briefly write about her thoughts and observations during her time as a teacher about the challenges she saw her ELL students go through, especially when underneath the language barrier, there was also possible learning differences and disabilities. She graciously agreed to share her experience with us. 

Before I begin my essay, I’d like to make clear that the following is a retelling of my own teaching experience and does not reflect the experiences of all other educators.

I was an E.L.L.* teacher for 25 years and in those years, I taught all the levels from Kindergarten through the seniors in High School. While each grade level brought new and different teaching challenges, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my job. I found it to be very rewarding. The students came from all over the world, often in small immigration waves. My classroom was a diverse place and there was always a lot to explore. Students learned to accept each other’s differences, be it traditions, festivals, language or even clothing. At times these differences brought up preconceived cultural biases, but because they learned together, my students bonded and learned to respect the differences among their peers. It was wonderful to watch young minds develop as their English improved. Gaining facility in their second or third language enabled them to express themselves more clearly and allowed for more of their individual personalities to shine through. And thanks to my students’ varied cultural perspectives, I broadened my own views and knowledge.

My classroom was a diverse place

Many teachers, even ELL teachers, are not always familiar with their students’ cultures and unfortunately some teachers show no interest in learning about them. New students are, in their opinion, “here to learn English!” This attitude adds to the students’ and teachers’ frustration level since, at times, they are at a linguistic and cultural impasse. In my opinion, to show an interest in the child’s culture is to show respect for the child and the child’s family. They may be here to “learn English” and “assimilate to our culture,” but our culture is a culture of immigrants. I, myself am a naturalized US citizen and was born and raised in another country. I think because of this, my students were more relaxed in my class. They knew I had been through a similar experience of having to learn about my adopted country’s culture and had been through many awkward moments in the process!

Things can easily get “lost in translation”

Sometimes these awkward cultural miscommunications can create “funny-in-hindsight” situations. I remember one funny moment while I was teaching in the middle school. Our school nurse stopped me in the hallway to let me know that she was referring one of my new students to a neurologist. I looked at her in dismay and asked why. She proceeded to explain that this student bobs his head from side to side a lot when you talk to him. I started to laugh. The nurse, of course, looked at me strangely and was clearly confused by my reaction. Once I composed myself, I mentioned that I didn’t believe there was anything wrong with my student. I continued to explain to the nurse that nodding your head from side to side in his culture was his way of nonverbally saying ok, or showing agreement or approval. The nurse laughed and thanked me profusely for the cultural tip!  As you can see, it helps to have experiences with many different cultures because things can easily get “lost in translation.”

Sometimes it makes the child fearful of the teacher, which of course is counter productive to learning

When a new ELL student arrives, the child is placed in a regular, mainstream classroom alongside their native speaking peers. The newly arrived student gets one or two periods of ELL class instruction per day, and during that time, is pulled out of the core classroom. Sometimes, when the English learner is placed in the mainstream classroom, the experience is a stressful one. The new student can’t understand what is being said by teachers or peers, and sometimes different cultural expectations cause conflict– I have even witnessed many of the General Education teachers try to communicate with their new student by articulating extremely slowly and distorting their faces into frightening grimaces, yelling their slowed down English at their new student as if the poor child was hard of hearing. Albeit well intentioned, the slow yelling does not help the child understand, but it does sometimes it makes the child fearful of the teacher, which of course is counter productive to learning.

I can still picture a few faces of my new students at the elementary level. They were little, they were impressionable, and the experience in the mainstream classroom was overwhelming for them. They would cry in the classroom. The Gen. Ed teachers, at their wit’s end, would send their ELL students down to see to me. They would come, sit, put their head down and cry. Largely, I’d let them have their emotional moment, then slowly, I would joke around with them and act the clown to get them laughing. Each child needed a little bit of TLC and had to have their feelings validated. It was ok to be scared and tense. As an ELL teacher, I had the advantage that my class had far fewer children in it than the mainstream classroom. I could take time and give them the individual attention they required. Within a few weeks of being sent to my classroom, the students were fine and were ready to be part of their regular class.

The feelings of being scared and overwhelmed weren’t just evident with the little ones. One year I had an 8th grader who needed ELL classes but had a good background in English. She was embarrassed that despite having studied a bit of English, she still couldn’t understand the teachers in all of her classes. She stood in front of my desk and explained her frustration, big tears rolled down her cheeks as she told me her difficulties. I knew her to be a serious student and eager to learn. I reassured her and told her to give herself time and she would be fine. I told her ear for American English would develop quickly. She started the ELL curriculum, alongside her General Ed work, and a couple of months later, she laughed when I reminded her of our first encounter. Over the course of the year, this student had gained confidence and was one of the top students in all her classes. But without that little extra help the ELL classes afforded her, she might have just gotten disgusted with being perpetually frustrated and given up.

Finding commonalities is always a great way to get the students to bond with one another

The ELL classroom is a special place in this way. It gives the children some breathing room, away from the pressure of having to “keep up” with the regular classroom. They relax and that creates a much more optimal base for learning. It equally helps when I’d show interest in learning about their various cultures. The children are so appreciative when they find out that their teacher knows even just one word in their language. It is a means to acknowledge that you see who they are and that you are invested in them. And really, to learn one or two words in another language is such a small gesture that reaps such big rewards.

Finding commonalities is always a great way to get the students to bond with one another. For instance, ELL students love to talk about their home county’s food traditions (and who doesn’t like to talk about food, really). I would learn the names of some of their countries’ traditional dishes and the names of the spices used. This would initiate a lively food-centric conversation in class. Their eyes would sparkle, they would show so much interest in the topic. They would all be eager to participate (even the shy ones) in the discussion. Some even volunteered to bring me dishes made by their parents or caregivers, because, of course, each of them had the best home recipe! And the only way to judge this is to try them all! Much like language, the gesture of being interested in their traditional cuisine is to be interested in their cultural history. And this I see as only fair. We expect them to come here and learn about the US and its history, but it is our job as educators to engage in an equal exchange.  The students come here, and are immersed in a completely new environment ,while, at the same time, often are held to their former country’s values and expectations by their parents or caregivers at home. Acknowledging that the duality is enriching for them and the greater community around them, helps ground their experience in assimilating both cultures into one existence.

Some students joined us from war-torn countries and had never been to school because in their country of origin, all the school buildings had been destroyed and children were hiding in the jungle, afraid of being kidnapped or killed. I once had a Middle School girl come to my class and had to be shown how to hold a pencil. My class was one of the first experiences she had had attending school. This type of situation is not atypical for an ELL teacher and you have to remember that, at times, a class of 15 ELL students could have 15 different languages spoken and each student carries different educational baggage. This is quite a challenge for the teacher!

Every day is a new experience, a discovery and sometimes a path to a new future. One year we decided to take our High School ELL students on a trip to Washington D.C. It meant getting on a bus at 5:30 am and coming back at midnight. We toured all the beautiful historical sites but one event struck the students more than anything else. It was our observation of a court case in session. One of our ELL teachers knew a lawyer in D.C. She had asked a judge if our students could sit in a courtroom and briefly observe a trial in process. When we came out of the courtroom, the students had millions of questions to ask the lawyer in their broken English. They were so enamored by the judicial system. One student, a 10th grade girl, who was not a particularly serious student at the time, stated that after witnessing the trial in the courtroom, she was going to study hard because she knew what she was wanted to be, a lawyer! This trip was an eye opener for students and educators alike. Sometimes, you get to witness the path to success and that is very satisfying.

Some of the ELL students that clearly had learning difficulties were getting stuck in a Kafka-esque chicken-or-egg bureaucratic mess

Other times, you unfortunately do not. Some students who are used to very strict discipline in their own country, find the American rules looser and try to become class clowns as an easy way to win acceptance by their peers. This often creates a poor relationship between the student and their teachers, and pigeonholes the new student as unruly or a problem child.

During the last 5 years, in our district, we saw an influx of ELL students that had the additional challenge of having learning disabilities. Some states and districts are very organized and are ready to handle the layers of challenges that lie ahead. Where I taught, the teachers were always at odds with the administration. Some of the ELL students that clearly had some learning difficulties or processing delays were getting stuck in a Kafka-esque chicken-or-egg bureaucratic mess. We, the teachers, would approach the administrators stating that we suspected that our ELL student had a learning disability and should get evaluated for possible inclusion in special education services. The administration would tell us that they could not test the student until the student knew enough English to be able to take the learning disability evaluation exams in English.

An average student in ELL takes about 2-3 years to gain some competence in English. It can take up to 7 years to be proficient. If a child has a learning disability, it slows down the ability to pick up a second language. What should be a 2-3 year learning process could be easily doubled. Additionally, this greatly increases the frustration level which, in turn, can manifest in behavioral problems in the classroom, making learning difficult for not only the ELL child with the learning disability but also for the other children in the class. The delay or outright inaction on the part of the administration could worsen an academic delay by years, because the student, while attempting to handle the new language and learning challenges at the same time, is not receiving the necessary educational services that could alleviate some of the academic struggles.

Parental involvement is another pivotal piece to an ELL student’s adjustment to their new school, whether the child has learning disabilities or is neuro-typical. Communication between parents and educators is crucial. If interpreters are needed to communicate clearly with the parents, the school is legally bound to have them available. Even if interpreters are not needed, the teachers need to speak simply in order to make sure they are being understood. In the parent-teacher meetings, foreign-born parents of the ELL students sometimes feel intimidated and just agree or nod to everything being said without really comprehending what is being agreed upon. This is especially important when the parents are called in to be informed that their child has learning challenges and should be tested to see if they have a learning disability. In some cultures, it is not acceptable to be learning challenged. It is looked upon as an embarrassment to the entire family. These are especially difficult but crucial conversations to have. Sometimes parents are aware of the problem but, not knowing what can be done, ignore it as if it might disappear by itself. Add this challenge on top of what I witnessed when dealing with the administration and you find yourself wondering if a child will ever receive the proper and appropriate education to which they are legally entitled.

One proposed solution that is gaining some traction is to advocate that the graduate students pursuing their Masters in Education get a double certification for ELL and Special Education. This would help hasten the ability of the school to help ELL students to receive special education services as quickly as possible. It would allow the teachers to better advocate for their students and let fewer students to slip through the proverbial cracks of the system that is meant to help them.

Despite all the challenges, teaching means exchanging and sharing ideas. Watching my ELL students grow and blossom into American youngsters was an invaluable experience and an incredible adventure. There was never a dull moment. I hope that with the coming generations, the services provided to ELL students and others will only continue to grow and improve so the schools can graduate well educated, happy, and self-confident individuals.

*E.L.L.: English Language Learner. A program in public and private schools that helps students that are new to the USA learn english and gain proficiency in the language.



Chantal Iyer is a retired ELL and French teacher. She enjoys learning new words in any language, loves exercising, and enjoys traveling all over the world to experience other cultures. But, her most favorite thing in the whole wide world is being a grandmother!

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