Beholder magazine logo

Language Barriers

My mother set the trajectory for my life when she didn’t check the little box that asked if my home language was anything other than English.

I’m leading a narrow path. My childhood was laced with uncoordinated jump rope rhymes, kids pulling at the corners of their eyes, the utter ignorance that “ching chong chang” meant something (you wouldn’t believe how often I heard it), and my all-time favorite, “are you Japanese or Korean?” Neither, I’m fucking American, but if you want to be technical, I’m Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. My yellow skin already set me apart from my cohorts; my mother spared me the ELL (English language learner) label.

I was born in the United States. My English was better than my father’s when I was five years old. For many immigrant parents, when they enroll their kids in school they tick the box that says ‘other language’ because it’s true or because they don’t know any better. Unless they do. I’ve seen it occur in my classrooms. Every. Single. One. Parents opt out when they realize the criticism the ELL label can bring their children.

Many children and adults don’t understand the kinds of burdens that come with the term ELL. They are seen as the bottom of the barrel, known as the bastard children of the English department. The ones teachers will blatantly talk down to. The ones that get ignored, forgotten. The ones with no “potential.” As I moved up in my career, I witnessed these moments more and more.

Growing up, I used my words to fight back. My fluency in the English language coupled with my wit made me stronger. My students don’t have that luxury. They can snap back in their native tongue but when they lack proficiency in the “universal” language, the words don’t hit as hard.

The kids are held to a standard that most adults won’t understand. When I lived in Texas, there’s a test that measures one’s CALP score when a student enrolls in school. Regardless of how long they’ve been in the country, they are all tested. You need a CALP 5 to pass. I barely made a 5, and that’s with a natural born in the US advantage. CALP, cognitive academic language proficiency. How do you expect a kid to have proficiency in English when it’s their first day in the country? Everything else they know is thousands of miles away. The school system gives them another reason, another score to remind them they are still not where they need to be.

So you tell me how the system expects a child to take multiple standardized tests in a foreign language with no aids when they can’t even ask if they can go to the bathroom. These are the terms used to label them: limited proficiency, advanced intermediate, intermediate, advanced, and beginner. Just because you score high on a placement test doesn’t mean you know the language either. Sure, the label disappears once you score high enough, but I have students who are marked “intermediate” that can barely do the work. The expectation, the common core state standards all my students are forced to be on are not fair. Tests are flawed. Never a true measure of one’s ability.

Look, our goal is to teach kids the language so they can be successful in life, not so they can pass a state-mandated test. We need to stop teaching to the test and start teaching to the individual. We need to accept the reality that not everyone is destined for college, that our job is to help them get to where they want to be. Because as high as our expectations can be and are for our students, we need to be realistic. We can push and push but they need to know how to survive on their own, how to balance a checkbook, how to fill out a job application, how to apply for FAFSA. They need to know how to call for help.

When you don’t give someone the proper tools to succeed, how do you expect them to? You don’t. Maybe that’s why the dropout rates are so high, maybe that’s why motivation is so low, maybe that’s why many children are pushed along in a pathetic attempt to show how “well” a school is doing. When in reality all schools are doing is setting these kids up for failure from the start.

Would it matter if I told you that I had one boy who worked nights so he could send money home? And yet despite the long hours of his workday, on the last two Chemistry tests I’ve sat with him on, he’s gotten higher than the class average? Would it matter if I told you that R— used to work so late into the early morning before school that he would fall asleep in class? But hey, he got the highest score on his last Algebra 2 test. How about if I tell you about the three girls that made a video about the struggles between their born-into culture and the social culture that made their English 3 teacher cry? Or how about J—? He was born addicted to drugs, he disrupts classrooms, he showed me his dad’s multiple mugshots. No one wants him in their classroom. But we managed to do more math problems together in 10 minutes than in a whole class period. He was so proud he called his grandmother. Or how about how A— got into fucking college? And if she doesn’t pass the STAAR she can’t go, much less graduate high school.

These are just some of my student’s stories. As the years continue, as I go from state to state, there is a multitude of different tests and needs to be met for foreign-born students. As I continue to build my own classroom, I am met with more students who have similar but unique stories. My kids where I’m at now, my students, the ones I’d fight tooth and nail for, they work so hard, and they try so hard in a space that isn’t conducive to their learning. We spent most of winter with no heat. Lockdown drills. Active shooter drills. Fights regularly. How do you expect kids to feel safe when there is no solace in the classroom?

Do you know how many of my kids actually think about college? Less than half. It isn’t a reality for them. The appeal of work and quick money makes their eyes shine. I have been pushing them to see the bigger picture. My job is less about teaching them the foundations of English and more about how to utilize their voice as the strongest weapon in their arsenal.

They’ve got so much potential but it doesn’t matter when society makes them believe they are nothing but the labor force that America is built on. And that is all they will ever consider themselves: a labor force.

Let’s not forget my LTELs—long-term English learners. These are the “unlucky ones.” They are defined as the ones who have been in the American school system for more than six years but “are not progressing toward English proficiency and who are struggling academically due to their limited English skills.” “Limited”—a label based on recommendations from teachers who, more often than not, never tried to engage them. They wonder on a constant basis why they are marked with ELL when they know no other home than the United States of America. And then there are my undocumented kids, who I have to remind regularly they are safe. Being marked ELL isn’t just a label that stays with you.

The ELL label confines you to the belief that you are not good enough.

Not smart enough, dumb, can’t speak English, need extra help.

Equal opportunity, what a joke. Some American Dream, right?