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Teen Voice: Learning a second language allows for empathy
November 18, 2016 Faith Reisig   

Read more by Faith Reisig
In my Spanish class this year the students are supposed to speak purely ďen EspaŮol.Ē I can usually understand what is being said, within limits, but I am woefully unable to communicate any complex thoughts or questions. Because I am not yet familiar or confident in my Spanish abilities, I am having a hard time in class.

Making a point to speak only Spanish in the classroom has improved my speaking skills significantly, but Iím still far behind the kids who are used to hearing it spoken.

Because everything is taught in Spanish, I donít understand as much as I would if it were taught in English. This is hard enough when Iím being taught how to speak the language; I canít imagine what it would be like to take science or history, two of my stronger classes, in Spanish.

The majority of my life is handled through a language I know. I love writing in English, playing with different words, and expressing myself. For me it is easy to do all of that in English, my most comfortable language. I may have 45 minutes of embarrassing attempts at conjugation in Spanish class, but at least I donít have to fill out tax forms in Spanish, or take the ACT in a language Iím new to.

Some people arenít that lucky. Data from the Census Bureau shows that 42.4 million immigrants now live in the U.S. The more I struggle to pick up a second language, the better I understand how hard it would be to move to a new country.

I wonít be moving to Spain or Mexico anytime soon. But a lot of kids my age donít have that kind of stability. There are some in my school who had to move to America because their parents decided to immigrate. I canít imagine what it would be like to be transplanted like that, but I can now understand the difficulties of trying to communicate in a language that doesnít make sense to me.

There are programs in place to help students struggling to pick up a new language. English Language Learners, or ELLs, are students that are unable to take classes in a new language.

While my Spanish class is slowly teaching me the finer points of communication in a new language, Iíve learned another lesson much more rapidly; not everyone is comfortable with how I speak. Even beyond people who are having to learn a new language, there are people who donít communicate as well as I do (and there are definitely people who communicate better than I do.) If I can be patient with people I struggle to understand and learn from, the people who are better than me in any area, I can improve as a writer, a speaker, and a person.

Students who qualify for English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are between three and 21 years of age, are enrolled in an elementary or secondary school, were born in another country, and do not speak English as their native language. Their English proficiency skills prevent them from accessing the grade-level curriculum and correlated standardized tests administered each year.

When foreign-born students first enter the school system, they are assessed for their current level of English language proficiency. Schools often have families fill out a Home Language Survey to establish the childís native language and the language currently spoken at home. Instructors will also conduct an informal interview with the student in both English and the native language, if possible, with the parent present. A formal assessment, such as the ACCESS for ELLs, will be administered to assess the studentís skills in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

There are many strategies ESL teachers use to assist students in learning English and familiarizing them with American culture. The use of visual cues is a tremendous support, as students may see the item or action being described. Technology has grown ESL instruction by leaps and bounds, as students can watch videos, engage in online language games, and gain hands-on practice hearing, watching, and speaking the English language.
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