Living in Two Languages
My oldest daughter had just finished brushing her teeth, turned to me and said, “Mami, I don’t want to speak Spanish anymore.” I was shocked, I stood there thinking, what, why, where did this come from? She’s only three! As I reflected on her experience growing up bilingual, I realized that she felt isolated. She had started preschool and no one spoke Spanish to her there. At family parties all of her cousins spoke English to one another. She and her brother were the only ones who had to repeat themselves in front of everyone because I made them speak Spanish to me.
I didn’t understand what it meant for them to live in two languages. Since my children were born, I committed to only speaking Spanish to them while their father spoke to them in English. If they answered me in English I would pretend I didn’t understand, forcing them to repeat it in Spanish. It was difficult and there were MANY times when I just wanted to give up and speak English to them. They would get frustrated with me, sighing when they had to repeat themselves. It was difficult for everyone and I kept asking myself, why is this so hard? I came to realize that my children do not have enough opportunities to practice using their Spanish.
Practice, Practice, Practice
These daily experiences with my own children remind me of my work as a teacher of English learners. For years I knew how important it was for students to have lots of opportunities to practice using English in the classroom. I knew I had to hold them accountable for their language skills and be a model for them as English speakers. But what I have come to appreciate is the drive and the patience that my students have with the process of living in two languages. As teachers, we cannot lose sight of the role of talk in our classrooms. A classroom rich with language opportunities is a classroom that can offer more opportunities for success than struggles for children living and learning in two languages.
It has been said repeatedly that classrooms should not be silent. They should be filled with dialogue and discussions between students, where they talk with their elbow partners and their peers on the other side of the classroom. I know this is not new to teachers. We understand how important it is for English learners to have multiple opportunities to talk about their learning, yet I still visit classrooms where there is silence. Students are listening to language but are not provided the opportunities to use it, to try it out, to make mistakes, and to get better. When my son says, “Mami, puedo ir outside-a,” I celebrate his trial and errors and remind myself that it is a process. If I continue to talk with him in Spanish and be a model for him he will continue to improve his language. But without the opportunities to hear him talk, to allow him to use his language skills, how could he continue his language development?
Eugenia Mora-Flores is an associate professor of clinical education in the Undergraduate and Teacher Education program at the University of Southern California (USC). She teaches courses on first and second language acquisition, and methods courses in literacy development for elementary and secondary students.
Eugenia further works as a consultant for Teacher Created Materials and for a variety of elementary and middle schools in the areas of English Language Development (ELD), Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE), and writing instruction for English Learners. She is the author of two books from Shell Education, Connecting Content and Language for English Language Learners and Science for English Language Learners: Developing Academic Language through Inquiry-Based Instruction. In addition, she was the key consultant on Teacher Created Materials’ language development product, Language Power.
As teachers we naturally talk at length with our students. We get so excited about teaching that we often lose sight of how much we are talking versus our students. Think about a typical day at work. How often did your students get a chance to engage in conversation with one another? How often did they get to talk with multiple partners across the curriculum?