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Posts Tagged ‘multilingual’

Photo: Ben James/Connecticut Public Radio.
Teacher Susan Blethen supports ESL students in a normal high school classroom in Burlington, Vermont.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, I assist teachers at two different Rhode Island agencies where they lead English as a Second Language classes. Since Covid, the classes have been online. I think it’s harder for the adults to learn a new language than kids, but our students are very motivated. They have their reasons — “to get a better job,” “to help my children with their homework,” “to talk to the doctor,” “to go to university.” It’s satisfying to watch them progress.

Young students from other countries also have reasons. Ben James of Connecticut Public Radio has a story about a few in the public school system of Burlington, Vermont, where multilingual liaisons smooth the transition to American schools.

“In an office at Burlington High School, just off Lake Champlain in northern Vermont, Chacha Ngunga made a phone call.

“ ‘Jambo jambo,’ he said, greeting a student’s father in their shared language, Swahili.

“Ngunga is a multilingual liaison — one of 12 employed by the Burlington district.

“A few feet away, Noor Bulle, another liaison, made a call in Maay Maay, one of the two major dialects of the Somali language. He reaches a Somali Bantu mother whose five children would soon enter district schools. The mother expressed amazement that her family was already on Bulle’s radar.

“Tens of thousands of Afghans who left their country after the Taliban took over in August will be resettling in the United States. Many of them are kids, so schools across the country are preparing to get these students up to speed. According to Bulle, the multilingual liaisons act as cultural brokers, helping refugee families understand how the U.S. school system works.

“Bibek Gurung, a graduate of Burlington High, is now a junior at Champlain College in Burlington, studying criminal justice. He arrived in Burlington during fifth grade, speaking almost no English. He said his Nepali-speaking liaison helped him with high school and with what he calls life stuff.

“ ‘I was actually looking for a job, and he advocated for me,’ Gurung said. ‘Through him, I was able to work for the Burlington Police Department as a beach-and-park patrol officer.’ …

“Shawna Shapiro, an associate professor at Middlebury College whose research focuses on the high school-to-college transition for refugee students, says many English learners in the U.S. finish high school unprepared for college. Part of the problem, she said, lies with English language learning programs that place students in lower-level academic classes, leaving them bored and underchallenged.

“Shapiro said educators underestimate not only refugee students’ abilities, but also their cultural and family resources.

“ ‘When you talk with students … you hear [them say,] “I feel underchallenged,” and then you pursue that a little more, and they say, ‘That’s frustrating because my parents were leaders in the refugee camp, and my mom was a professor, and my uncle was a police officer, and we’re here, and it feels like no one recognizes any of that,’ ” she said.

“Samjana Rai, a college-bound senior who arrived from Nepal when she was in seventh grade, has heard a similar frustration from her peers about low expectations.

” ‘A lot of my friends want to go to college,’ Rai said. ‘But because of classes that they had to take in sophomore year, freshman year, it’s a little harder for them to go to the college that they want to go to.’ …

“Down the hallway from the multilingual liaison office, 30-year veteran teacher Susan Blethen introduced a lesson to her integrated class of native English speakers and English learners. It’s taught by two teachers: the regular subject teacher and Blethen, who is a specialist in English Language Learning. …

“One purpose of the mixed classes, Blethen explained, is to make sure the English learners are being taught material that stimulates and inspires them to take on more challenges. In previous years, many of the English learners in this class would have been placed in what’s called ‘sheltered instruction,’ separated from their native-English-speaking peers.

“Blethen was the first teacher in Vermont to become certified as an English language learning instructor. She recalled a moment from early in her career.

“ ‘I actually had a social studies teacher yell at me when I was a young teacher, saying, “Why are they in my class if they can’t speak English? You have to teach them English before they can come into my class.” ‘ …

“Standing with a group of her peers, [Somali student] Aden said the languages and cultures of refugee students are still undervalued. …

“ ‘Bilingual people aren’t dumb. [They] can be challenged, and they can be doing higher things.’

“Aden herself plans to take honors civics next semester. ‘I thought, instead of doing an easy class, I should just challenge myself, because I’d be learning more if I did.’ ”

More at WBUR, here.

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The other day I was chatting with my three-year-old grandson about language. I can’t remember how we got started, but I found myself talking to him in “Goose Latin,” which was all the rage when I was about 10. He listened with a bemused look on his face and then said politely, “I don’t know that language.”

I may not be able to speak anything but English and a few lines of French poetry, but I do love learning about language. So I appreciated receiving this tidbit from the Economist magazine on how language interacts with personality.

The reporter RLG writes, “Many multilinguals report different personalities, or even different worldviews, when they speak their different languages.

“It’s an exciting notion, the idea that one’s very self could be broadened by the mastery of two or more languages. In obvious ways (exposure to new friends, literature and so forth) the self really is broadened. Yet it is different to claim—as many people do—to have a different personality when using a different language. A former Economist colleague, for example, reported being ruder in Hebrew than in English. So what is going on here?

“Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. Often called ‘Whorfianism,’ this idea has its sceptics, including The Economist, which hosted a debate on the subject in 2010. But there are still good reasons to believe language shapes thought. …

“Bilinguals usually have different strengths and weaknesses in their different languages—and they are not always best in their first language. For example, when tested in a foreign language, people are less likely to fall into a cognitive trap (answering a test question with an obvious-seeming but wrong answer) than when tested in their native language. In part this is because working in a second language slows down the thinking. …

“What of ‘crib’ bilinguals, raised in two languages? Even they do not usually have perfectly symmetrical competence in their two languages. But even for a speaker whose two languages are very nearly the same in ability, there is another big reason that person will feel different in the two languages. This is because there is an important distinction between bilingualism and biculturalism.

“Many bilinguals are not bicultural. But some are. And of those bicultural bilinguals, we should be little surprised that they feel different in their two languages.”

If you’re interested, there’s a great deal more explanation at the Economist, here.

Photo: Alamy

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It says here, at Pacific Standard, that learning a second language translates into clearer thinking. No surprises there, but good to have evidence.

In Providence this week, a certain baby I know is showing an affinity for more than one language. His mother thinks he finds his father’s Swedish soothing, especially when sung in a low voice.

While the baby is tuning in to Swedish and English, his parents are studying a language called Basic Baby. It’s the world’s oldest language. In its simplest form, it involves crying: “You’re doing this wrong — try a different tack.” Or silence: “You’re doing this right.” At higher levels, it gets more complex. For example, you may be doing something right, but there is still crying: “This digestive business feels totally weird.”

Basic Baby is not too hard to learn if you (a) pay attention, (b) realize that you will figure it out eventually. It was your own first language. If you are  rusty, maybe you just need to bone up a bit.

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