Reflections on a multilingual scene


Email Sandra Nichols

  "Most people understand that the inability to speak English is not a character flaw."


hile walking on the wharf in Monterey, CA one evening, I counted seven different languages other than English being spoken during a 90-second observation. It struck me how the music of a language other than your own draws your attention. Not everyone responds the same to this music. I, for one, felt happy, perceiving that our exceptionally beautiful area draws people from all over the world.

My experience walking on the wharf is juxtaposed with a memory I have of a woman complaining that when she goes to the store "these days" all she hears is people speaking Spanish. She expressed her disapproval of people who do not speak English at the grocery store, for goodness sakes.

One of the lessons I recall from my church youth group was that "you can't keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair." We did not understand the meaning of this saying, but it was explained to us that everybody has negative thoughts. You should not feel guilty about that. It is inevitable. But you can recognize a bad attitude and refuse to have it consume you. You can cast it out and replace it with a more positive one.

With these things in mind, I want to share some stories about students who are learning English as a second language and their experiences and successes at our public schools.

A teenage girl was washing the dishes when the school psychologist came to talk with her mother about a younger sibling. The psychologist noticed that the girl did not speak and he asked the mother why. The mother said the girl was a deaf mute who recently moved here from a Central American country. Asked why she didn't attend school, the mother replied in Spanish, "How could she? She doesn't hear!"

That girl then enrolled in public school. She got hearing aides and received special services at the school. I became her speech therapist. She learned to speak English and Spanish in the six years that she attended school. She graduated and then got a job at a local retail shop where I have seen her hard at work over the years.

That is what bilingual education and special education can do!

Another one of my students was in second grade when his mother came to me and exclaimed that he was starting to read in English. He had been in bilingual classes, being taught to read in Spanish and the mother had been concerned that he would have difficulty learning to read in English. This boy started telling his mother what the traffic signs said in English and explaining to her in Spanish what the words meant. He had never been instructed in English reading although he was being taught to speak English in his bilingual class. His Spanish reading skills transferred spontaneously to English. This mother was pleased and proud.

My English language-learning students have important responsibilities within their families. From the time they are in first or second grade they serve as interpreters for their parents at banks, at stores and with their landlord. I believe essentially all of our bilingual students do this, especially the first born, who carries the special status of being the first bilingual family member.

The parents of these students often ask what they can do to help their children at home, though they do not speak English and can not read the homework. There is much that they can do to help their children. They can provide a quiet place to do the homework and see that the child attempts all of it. Also, they can support their children's schooling by showing interest and asking the child to tell about the work and projects they bring home. They can participate in a great variety of events at their children's schools. In this context they can become part of strong parent networks.

One of the best things Spanish speaking parents can do to help their children is to improve their own English skills by enrolling in adult school classes. Thousands of parents do this. And when they do, they not only improve their skills, but they show their children how important it is to attend school and to learn English.

Most people understand that the inability to speak English is not a character flaw. It is a fact of life and is a temporary condition that could change at any time! People can learn a second language at any age, with proper instruction and a good attitude.

Sandra Nichols is a trustee and past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,700 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with the Santa Cruz City School District, and a former commissioner 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.

© Sandra Nichols 2005