Bolstering Languished Language Learners
Breaking a language barrier is a difficult endeavor.
Those in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs face the daunting task of assimilating themselves into an unfamiliar culture with a new set or norms, values and behaviors, in addition to learning an entirely foreign form of communication. It often leaves them insecure of their place in their new society, and, even more often, the programs available don’t do much to ease their feelings of discouragement.
Ladies for Latinos is a group of five Old Dominion University students advocating for better ESL programs, and more of them.
Shantel Lawson, Bridget White, Samantha Beasley, Jalesa Hood and Breauna Spivey took on the effort for a project in HMSU 346, Diversity Issues in Human Services, instructed by Tammi Milliken, Ph.D. They are specifically addressing the lack of accommodations for Latino women who speak English as a second language by interviewing the women to get a better understanding of the issues they face as English learners and budding Americans.
The course focuses on increasing awareness of disparity of privileges in different social groups. Lawson said people like to believe these issues don’t exist and that hard work and diligence beget success, but the fact is that meritocracy is a fallacy.
“People are still facing troubles today. If we just ignore the problem it won’t go away,” Lawson said.
No matter how conscious people are of an issue, the notion of futility tends to discourage many from taking action. One thing this project shows is that anyone can make a difference.
“A lot of people in my class have been saying… public safety, for example… ‘What can we even do as students?’ There’s five of us… and we can make a difference,” White said. “If students see something that’s wrong and want to make a difference, all they have to do is get together and work toward it.”
As the saying goes, ‘If you want to change the world, start in your community,” but such efforts can be tedious when there is a lack of such. This seems to be the challenge with ESL programs offered through the school system.
Many of the women Lawson and White interviewed said often students don’t do the work or pay attention to the teacher because they will not speak in Spanish, causing low graduation rates. The students are discouraged because they cannot ask questions in their own language and feel that their culture is being ignored.
The lack of support in the school system turns more students toward churches offering ESL programs.
“They just don’t have that community. When they go to church with their families they have support, but when they go to the schools they’re alone, pressured to sit in and become American,” White said.
This is also an issue of trust in many cases. Students may feel less willing to communicate because they feel misunderstood or unimportant. Even outside the classroom, the feeling of being an outsider can be overwhelming. The hardest part is the pressure to become American and having to trade old values for new ones just to fit in.
“When you have someone who is at a disadvantage in life, and they come to you and see you in your privilege… they’re going to be reluctant to trust you because they feel like you don’t understand,” Lawson said. “People have a habit of giving up. When they hear that thick accent, they just tune them out.”
Despite the slight despondence, the women were very willing to open up to Lawson, White and the rest of the group. They are eager to learn the language and culture and capitalize on the opportunities America has to offer. The group hopes the women will apply that same willingness to connect with others and be heard outside of the ESL programs.
“They have amazing life experiences and so much to share with you,” White said. “They’re already at the halfway point. You just need to come that little bit more and you can open the door, a whole new experience.”
By Derek Page