October 3, 2007

Understanding Bilingualism

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning at 8: 46 pm by MK

I just finished an interesting article, “Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Professionwide Responses to a New Challenge,” by Guadalupe Valdes. In it, she seeks to define the bilingual individual and place an emphasis on the need for more research conducted specifically on second-language writing. She divides bilingual individuals into two categories: elective and circumstantial. Electives are those English speakers who have sought out foreign language classes such as Spanish or French, and have even gone to live or study abroad in another country. However, the intent of an elective is not to necessarily move to said country or fully adopt the foreign language. Most electives are middle class: learning another language is a luxury of sorts. Circumstantials, on the other hand, are forced to relocate to a new country and must learn the new language for survival. Yes, I’m kind of an elective (although I never became fluent, I did attempt to learn Spanish and study abroad) and A. & K. are circumstantials. Funny, when you compare myself to A. & K. it’s easy to see how drastically different electives and circumstantials can be.

When Valdes breaks down the circumstantials, she notes some interesting particulars. The child learner will enter a “functional” stage of learning after about two years of being in a new country. This means that he/she will be basically fluent and able to function in all aspects of life with needed written and oral language skills. Interestingly, when the child has reached this stage, he/she will begin to avoid using his/her native language. However, this native language will still be present in the way he/she both speaks and writes. Adult learners will most likely not enter the functional stage until they have been in the new country for 10 years. They will also remain native language preferrent.

Obviously the 2 and 10 year markers are averages. What can impact and change these estimates is the amount of time the second-language learner is surrounded by speakers of the new language. Z. & G. may learn much more quickly because they are in school five days a week surrounded by English speakers. A. has a good chance of lessening that 10 year marker because most likely he will soon get some form of employment and be exposed to English speakers on a daily basis. K., unfortunately, will probably take longer to hit the functional mark. Culturally, the expectation for her is to stay home and raise the children, especially with such young children. As the Burmese community is quite large in our area, she will most likely be surrounded by Burmese speakers on a daily basis. As my grandmother grew up being her mother’s Italian translator (my great grandmother never came close to hitting the functional stage), I can easily see Z. & G. assuming that role for ther parents.

Valdes argues that much of the research conducted on second-language learners has focused on oral learning, with the assumption that oral conclusions automatically apply to writing skills and learning. After living in Madrid for six months, I could speak Spanish well. However, my writing skills definitely did not match the oral. (I could only write in present tense!) And when we think of the composition classroom, it seems instructors need to be aware that simply because their bilingual student may speak clearly, they will still have special needs in terms of writing instruction.

For me, Valdes offers a clear analysis and understanding of the bilingual student. Obviously, each student is an individual and experiences can change dramatically but at least this is a place to start, to begin an understanding.

October 2, 2007

A good night

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning, Teaching Tools at 8: 34 pm by MK

So much for the doom & gloom of my last post. Tonight’s visit, while not exactly soothing my guilty conscious, was really great. The kids are in school and are thriving. They have successfully (and quite confidently I must say) navigated the public transportation system and have settled into new lives as 6th & 7th graders. They could proudly and clearly tell me the name of both their school and their teacher. (Although the whole Mrs. vs. Mr. thing did need to get sorted out…)

We spent most of the evening looking through the papers in their backpacks. One of the first things I discovered was an emergency contact sheet that needed to be filled out for both children. I went over it with Z. & G. and had them each write in the necessary pieces (address, phone number, parents’ names, DOBs). It was good to hear them recite both their address and phone number. However, when G. went to write his parents’ names, he incorrectly spelled both of them. K. was right there watching over his shoulder and did not recognize the misspelling of her name in English. I helped to correct the names, and then reviewed with all of them how to spell their names. Is K. misspelling her name on anything she needs to sign or write in English?

I could not explain “date of birth,” so I ended up asking K. for her immigration papers. On the papers I found birth dates for all the family members and explained that this was the information that needed to be written on the sheets for the two children. Now maybe it’s just a wild coincidence, but Z. & G. both have the exact same birth date a year apart. Yes, they are one-year apart in age, but were they really born on the exact same day of the same month? This seems pretty unlikely. But if the date is incorrect on their immigration papers, what is the chance that it will be changed? And do they know what to change it to? Even though I think I correctly communicated what the date stands for, they all readily agreed that it was correct. Yeah, not sure what to do about this one . . .

A young man (Burmese speaking) from the apartment downstairs came up at some point to translate a few questions A. & K. had for me. The issue is that the children would like to eat lunch from the school but are unsure if it is halal. I expressed that the safest (and cheapest) bet would be for the kids to pack their lunches and bring them along. But then I realized they would definitely qualify for free school lunches. I brought this up to my translator (yes, he did speak English, but it was still rough) who responded that in order for the kids to get free school lunch the cost of the meals would be deducted from the families’ food stamp allotment. This doesn’t seem right to me. The family then told me this was a problem because they currently do not have food stamps left, and are waiting for the next installment. Worried, I asked repeatedly if they had enough food in the house to eat until they received the next installment of food stamps. They said yes. I’m not so sure they weren’t telling me what they knew I wanted to hear. However, when I left K. was cooking something that smelled fantastic, but just to be on the safe side I’m going to drop a note to their case worker tomorrow.

G. had homework to complete for tomorrow. He had to read out loud for 15 minutes and then record what he had read and how many pages. Well, by slowly sounding out letters and words we actually got through 2 pages of a children’s book– I was really proud of him! But again that guilt kicks in….who’s going to be there to help him tomorrow?

I looked through the ESL assignments they’d done in school so far and it made me feel really good. Most of the exercises were things that I actually had been doing with them, so it was a nice confirmation that I have been on the right track. And the best part is, the kids, and the family as a whole, seem to be on the right track.

September 7, 2007

The unexpected

Posted in Literacy Needs, Second language learning, Uncategorized at 11: 56 am by MK

I went to the apartment last night with an array of lesson plans & activities.  I was prepared to teach, and teach well.  And I was ready for one student, or ten.  I thought this was going to be the night we would make some real progress; I was determined.

When I arrived, I quickly realized that just because I have some nice, neat lesson plan packed in my bag, doesn’t mean that the family is sitting there waiting for me to show up.  They are dealing with real, concrete, functional issues of life:  like sending two kids to school for the first time.

Ordinarily the junior-high school both children attend would be a short one-block walk from their apartment.  However, it’s currently being renovated so now the trek to school consists of two city buses and a transfer half-way.  Their case manager O. was there last night trying to get things sorted out.  O. and I ended up driving the children to their new school so they could see what it looked like, and then figuring out the best bus-route for them to take.

I felt for the two kids.  When we pulled up to the school, I really tried to look at it through their eyes:  it was big and looming and scary.  I gave them encouragment and acted excited, but their fear was evident.  Going back to school for any child can be overwhelming, let alone in a new country when you don’t speak the language.  And I know adults (okay, myself included, I’ll admit it) that would be nervous about taking the city bus and negogiating a transfer…how are these kids suppose to feel? 

O. is going to do a dry-run on the bus with them and take them to school herself on Monday (their first day).  I am sure this will help.  The school has also assured her that they have a number of refugee-status children, are familiar and comfortable working with the families, and have the experience to do so.    I am sure the first few weeks will be rocky, but it will get better.  And the children will become sponges, learning the language quickly. 

As I drove home last night, I realized my lesson plans never left my bag, but it felt like I got a lot done.  My concept of “progress” is always changing.

July 23, 2007

And then there were ten

Posted in English as a second language, Second language learning at 3: 03 pm by MK

When I showed up to teach A. & K. and their family Friday night, only the children and K. were home. However, shortly into the lesson A. came home. And then W. & B., the two Burmese men that live downstairs, showed up. Then five more guys trickled in; I hadn’t met them before but word must be out that there are free English lessons being offered. At one point I shifted my chair to enlarge the circle, looked around at the ten faces surrounding me and mildly panicked. Somehow lesson plan ideas for a family of five didn’t seem so transferable to a larger group. But in the end they were. . .

One that worked particularly well: I went around the circle and had each person say three descriptive things about the person sitting next to them. Some of the newcomers were more advanced and had an easier time. For the less advanced, there was a lot of prompting and Burmese translating, but it seemed to work well. Great practice of colors, and articles of clothing.

A. & K.’s case manager stopped by during the lesson. The church across the street has offered her free classroom space to teach English classes. She asked me if I wanted to teach some, and I said sure! If folks are going to be piling into the small apartment, it would be great to have space to work in and a blackboard to use. She also mentioned another English teacher that may be interested in helping–double plus as far as I’m concerned. It would be great to be able to work with someone that has experience I can learn from.

Oh, and E. stood me up. But she promises to meet me Wednesday night, so we’ll see.

July 17, 2007

Burmese snakes?

Posted in English as a second language, Second language learning at 7: 56 pm by MK

I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to.

Neighbors Scotty & Franky (and Scotty’s wife Priscella and five children) who live across the street from A. & K. have decided to befriend the family. I came up to the apartment today and outside Scotty had lawnchairs set up and a charcoal grill going with burgers and sausages. It was a whirlwind of kids, meat, and Juicy Juice. Scotty assured me that he’ll keep a close watch on the family. Why? Well, because he’s a good guy, his language is close to theirs with its vowel sounds (he speaks Spanish), and he raises Burmese snakes (says it will give him good insight into the culture). Plus gerbils, hamsters, bunnies….says it’s a regular zoo across the street. He offered to take me over; I politely declined. Okay, all joking aside I’m not sure what Scotty’s all about, but for now I’m going to put aside my impulse to doubt and hope that someone will really be looking out for their welfare. But oh Scotty, how do we explain the concept of halal?

When we finally made it upstairs the lesson went really well. Everyone is really eager to learn, and we had fun with the flashcards I had made. However, I completely underestimated the time I would need–we flew through the flashcards. So, I moved on to a vocabulary lesson of things around the apartment. When we got to silverware, the word “fork” left everyone laughing. Yes, with their accent it sounded like something that is definitely not fork. Of course that would be the one English word they know!

I left them later in the hands of Scotty, saying, “Hello, my name is K. How are you today?” Please let Scotty be a good guy.