Join the "Ear for English" Movement


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  "People do not have to give up their headscarves, their turbans, their cowboy hats, or their Mohawk hairstyles to be good United States citizens or to learn English."


e have to talk! Ominous words insinuating something's wrong.

We have to talk about the anonymous remarks appearing as a Speak Out in Tuesday's Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. Entitled "Students need to speak English," it is suggested that "if these young Latinos would speak English among themselves, they could learn better, instead of always, always speaking Spanish."

It is true that practice makes perfect - sometimes. The Speak Out continues, "the only time they speak English is because they're forced to in school" (sic).

Forcing English—24/7—on another culture was tried in this country on Native Americans during the early part of the last century. A phenomenon of linguistic significance in our history was the creation of "Indian Schools," boarding schools where the speaking of Indian languages was prohibited. In the name of learning English, children were punished for speaking their native tongue.

Resentment still lives in literature written by Native Americans whose cultural heritage was trampled by an English speaking majority who insisted on assimilation, accompanied by the abandonment of one's own heritage. Some Indian dialects have become extinct, with others on the endangered list!

The resentment that accompanies efforts to eliminate cultural heritage and pride for any culture other than that of mainstream English speakers is detrimental to our values of tolerance and individual freedoms under which we have operated for centuries.

It is true that "students need to speak English," if they are to survive and flourish in the United States. It is not true that they need to abandon their own culture and language to do so. People do not have to give up their headscarves, their turbans, their cowboy hats, or their Mohawk hairstyles to be good United States citizens or to learn English.

Having English speaking friends and associates would be much more beneficial in regards to developing English skills. Cross-cultural friendships are effective at bringing people into our society while they continue to value their own heritage.

Ideally, these social connections might be made in schools. However, schools with few native English-speaking students do not provide enough opportunities for all students to socially connect with native English speakers and form real friendships that involve playing together on the weekends. It is for us, the native English speakers to offer this social connection that would eliminate the problem of a lack of a common language.

Young children learn language naturally and easily from hearing it spoken. If they hear it spoken correctly, they will learn to speak it correctly almost without exception. If they hear advanced vocabulary being used correctly, they will use the big words, too. If children only have language models that are also English learners — that is, people who speak English less than fluently — they will learn imperfect English.

Here's an example that illustrates how children learning English as a second language reinforce each other's errors. Some young friends of mine, who are all Spanish speakers learning English, were visiting at my house with their mother. When they were getting ready to leave, the boys shouted, "Shaw-guh" as they raced off to the car. I asked the mother, "What do they mean when they say, "Shaw-guh?" She replied, "Oh it's something kids say when they want to sit in the front seat."

Oh yes, the children had learned that expression in context from their peers! But who will tell them what it means and how it is really pronounced unless you or I do? Who will share with the children our rich history that includes the Wells Fargo stagecoach, and the man who rode "Shot-gun" with the 12 gauge at the ready to fend of bandits? Who will turn these children on to such interesting tales of history, if not you or I?

Please, join me. Extend a helping hand to those who want to learn to speak English well.

Your suggestion that Latinos should speak English to themselves is not nearly as productive as making friends with a few and serving as an English proficient role model. Most second language learners are extremely pleased to form friendships with native speakers.

Imagine a community in which every English learner has a fluent English speaking friend. Imagine a community where fluent English speakers volunteer to tell stories in English to a group of toddlers in Spanish speaking homes once a week.

I am currently working on a project which I call "Ear for English," which involves recruiting volunteers to tell stories in English in a no-pressure context to preschoolers in homes and day care centers. If you want to join me in this effort, please contact me at my home: 763-1895. Together we can make this happen.

Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and served on the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

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© Sandra Nichols 2004