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January 20, 2022
With 1.5 billion speakers globally, English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Although the U.S. does not have an official language, English is predominantly used in the government, educational resources and media. It can be difficult for students not fluent in English to integrate into the community.
“In the beginning, it was a challenge because language is really important,” said Marra, a native Portuguese speaker from Brazil. “I feel like there was a barrier. I was really shy in the beginning, so it was a little difficult to make friends.”
The English Language Learning program can help students like Marra with this social barrier.
“Many people from different cultures were [in ELL] and it was a good experience for me because, together, everyone was trying to learn English and I didn’t feel alone,” Marra said.
Another potential challenge for students and families who are not native English speakers is communicating with the school. Although there are accommodations, such as interpretation and translation services, some believe the district can do more. Adrian Rodriguez ’24, whose parents are not completely fluent in English, has noticed a lack of communication in other languages.
“Every email that the school has sent has been in English. I never see them in Spanish,” he said. “I think [the district] should add emails in other languages … it would be a great improvement to the whole district if they would be able to do that,” Rodriguez said.
The communication barrier extends to academics as well. Keeping up in classes taught in English as a non-native speaker can be demanding, especially in subjects heavy on reading and writing.
“During an APUSH test or English test, sometimes I don’t understand some English words, but over time, that has [happened less],” Marra said.
However, the language barrier hasn’t stopped Marra from taking on a challenging course load or standardized tests.
“I like to challenge myself and I think my English is improving every year,” Marra said. “I think you always need to try your hardest and find the things you find difficult and make them easier.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are students learning languages they are already very familiar with. Dr. Giovanni Zimotti, director of Spanish Language Instruction at the University of Iowa, says that language classes can be difficult even for those who can already speak fluently.
“When you go to school, you get hours and hours of English grammar here in the United States. And for [Spanish heritage speakers], the only Spanish they’ve been speaking was the Spanish they were speaking at home … so they can speak Spanish, but they have some issues with grammar because they never learned it,” Zimotti said.
Native speakers learn a language through the formal education system of the country they were born in. It is often the first language they have learned. On the other hand, heritage speakers are informally exposed to the language at home through their families. It is not usually their first language, and they use a different language in their daily life outside of home.
Rodriguez moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 9. Although he is a native Spanish speaker, he still finds that not all of the AP Spanish content comes naturally to him. He has noticed that writing and analyzing readings are the hardest parts of the class as he isn’t accustomed to using Spanish in an academic setting. He also noted the Spanish taught at West is more formal than what he uses on a day-to-day basis.
“[The teacher] showed us an example of writing this formal letter,” Rodriguez said. “There were words that I never use at home.”
Aparicio Ruiz, who is also a native Spanish speaker, believes this is an important distinction.
“We have to take into account that the Spanish we are learning here is very much Spanish used in academia,” Aparicio Ruiz said. “Of course there’s going to be so many dialects and slang that [native speakers] might be aware of but that we don’t necessarily use when writing a letter or presentation.”
Although not everything taught in language classes feels familiar to native and heritage speakers, the AP curriculum places a strong emphasis on cultural learning. This provides some students with the opportunity to connect to their own culture.
“It’s a language that’s connected to [native speakers] personally. It provides an opportunity to communicate in the language that their grandparents speak,” Aparicio Ruiz said. “It carries sentimental value [and it is] important to me that my native speakers are able to connect with that.”