Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ESL and Spanish Language Learners: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

     Ten years ago I finished an eight-year period of teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to adults in a daytime program through the local school board.  I sort of fell into the job since what I was really looking to do was teach Spanish.  Soon after I started this position, I also began teaching Spanish at the community college in my area.  I had the opportunity during those years, to observe many differences between the two groups in terms of motivation, goals, curriculum and attitudes towards the other language and the people or society that used it.  At first glance, it seemed that each was the opposite of the other.  Immigrants learning English, and Americans learning Spanish.  I taught the beginning levels of Spanish (first two semesters) and the Intermediate-Low level in the English program.  What quickly became clear was that most of the ESOL students could communicate with me in English about a variety of topics at a basic level even though their grammar and vocabulary had some flaws. However, only students of Spanish who had had several years of high school study and/or good AP scores were comparable.  Of course this would be reasonable to expect, given that recent arrivals are here in an English-only environment and need it to survive, at least, and get ahead and integrate into society.  No student of Spanish, not even Spanish teachers have the same expectations placed upon them (professors, a bit more but usually limited to expertise and use for the workplace and their particular field, for example, literature or linguistics).   English as a second language speakers who become bilingual to any degree usually do so because of the circumstance they find themselves in, that is, being in an English-speaking country and so are called circumstantial bilinguals.  Those born in the US and whose family didn't speak Spanish at home as a native language and acheive a degree of bilingualism are called elective bilinguals, because they freely chose to learn a second language and not because they were obligated to do so in order to thrive in a new country and society.
     Aside from the general speaking ability of the students I met, the topics and skills expected of the English students at the intermediate level, were of practical and mostly immediate need.  Some examples I came across in either textbooks or from listening in on other classes were how to use an ATM, how to use a gas pump (and the English phrases associated with it) and cuts of meat associated with different dishes.  At the time,  I was, in a way, jealous that they were even being introduced to them, when we (non-native or non-heritage speakers) rarely, if ever, get such opportunities.  It was even more eye-opening when I went to a TESOL conference (for teachers of English for Speakers or Other Languages).  In teaching materials alone there was more available on every aspect of the language and American culture, particularly vocabulary, than I have ever seen for Spanish, and certainly, when it came to adult education, highly practical.  I started to see that the eventual expectations for the non-native English speaker living in the US were far greater, in general and broad terms, than for any non-native student of Spanish. I felt frustrated not only for personal reasons but also because I came to  realize  the hegemony of English.  Native speakers of English, even those who can speak another language well, can forget or not see this.  It's easy to take your (first) language for granted in your own country.  For example, we request a counter check at the bank,  explain to the doctor the reason for our visit, shop for car insurance, politely get rid of a telemarketer,  give detailed directions to someone, request warranty repair and many other day-to-day uses of language.  We might not need to know how to do that in Spanish to survive in this country, however, such highly practical language skills, must be developed in order to approach becoming fully bilingual.  By this I mean going beyond handling spontaneous casual conversation and carrying out the linguistic functions required for a job that entails interacting with other professionals or the public in the language. 
      Foreign language education starts off bottom-up then jumps several rungs on the ladder towards the top where literature is found and becomes top-down but the middle -this wide range of language that I mention above, sandwiched in-between basic casual conversation and low-frequency literary language- is nowhere to be found.  The illusion doesn't become apparent until it is tested in the real world of everyday practical and professional language use that is taken for granted in bilingual communities. 
     Some initiatives have been taken to improve foreign language education in the United States. A few years ago, the Modern Language Association issued a report entitled "Foreign Languages and Higher Education:  New Structures for a Changed World".  In it, there is a discussion of how universities and colleges might reorganize their programs to balance language, culture and literature.  It may not be what everyone ideally wants but it is a significant change for the better. You can read about it here.


  1. What a great post! Lately I've been looking for information regarding Spanish Language Learners for English speakers in the US and have come empty handed. Contrastingly, I've found a great deal of information from Europe about acquiring a second language with even government efforts to promote the development of global citizens that can communicate in multiple languages. The European Community launched about a year ago a campaign to promote Early Language Acquisition in preschoolers. What a different story the one we have here in the USA.

  2. Really it is a nice blog, I would like to tell you that you have given me much knowledge about it. Thanks for everything.

  3. This is so true! Because English is such a high demand language, most other countries make it a requirement for students to learn it in elementary school. I wish it was the same way here, but the only places you will find other languages taught in elementary schools are generally in private schools.