Re: Learning English

From: Sharon Vaipae (
Date: Tue Aug 03 1999 - 00:34:34 EDT

What follows in this long posting is a not so short, or simple answer to
lesemann's question. It is offered, along with admiration for lesemann's and his
family's easy acquaintance with a second language, as an effort to spread
information about a field which should be of increasing concern to Americans,
and especially Californians. Greater general public knowledge about SLA
(second language acquistion), and especially for school purposes, can hopefully
prevent such dismal displays as last year's passage of Proposition 187 in CA.
Not becoming fully competent in your environment's language denies equity in
many pastures.

Lesemann wrote:
>How long did it take your daughters to learn english and get to understand
>the contents of their academic work?
>>Original message:
>>I am an ESL university educator who spent nine years in Japan with
>my elementary-age daughters in Japanese public schools. Although English
>was the home language, while in Japan they learned to read and write
>English only at several grade levels below their actual placement. Upon
>return to the American public school system, the school personnel in two
>states - California and Iowa - presented many obstacles to obtaining the
>necessary academic second languge instruction and appropriate placement in
>content area classes for my daughters...

Here goes:

Daughter 1, a seventh grader upon reentry to U.S., has been in the public
schools now for two years. She is struggling considerably with such
essentials as academic vocabulary/register, reading speed, cultural references
which support meaning (schema), and discouraged with working to
catch up. A second language learner must make faster progress than a
native speaker simply because the native speaker is moving ever further
ahead to be caught up with....surely that could have been better phrased.
Even in listening to normal native speaker rate, she needs additional time
to process recently learned structures, and cope with new vocabulary, or
new uses of words with multiple meanings. This means she does not get
the same value from classroom lecture presentations as a native speaker.
This daughter has need of very strong support at home and at school in order to
become a "regular student." Her discouragement is reflected in her recent
defensive comment, "Maybe I want to serve french fries." Now more than just
language learning ability is coming into play - there are some psychological and
teen social burdens to unload.

Daughter 2, leaving Japan in mid-fifth grade, was put into second semester of
fourth grade because she was not even quite sure of all the English alphabet.
She is much more of a "scholar" than her older sister, and at the end of her
first 18 months of U.S. schooling, was reading at 5.7 grade level. A very
substantial accomplishment, and was on each quarter's honor roll in her U.S.
fifth grade. She also had high high anxiety, and missed 24 days of school due to
"stomach aches." I referred to part of this in a posting a few months ago - she
had been misidentified as Hispanic, and she quickly picked up on some of the
school/community disfavor of that identification. Her response of, "No, I'm
Samoan," was not highly regarded, either. What kind of a climate is this for
learning _anything_?

Daughter 2 was more interested in school than Daughter 1 in Japan, and so
developed a much stronger literacy base in her first written language of
Japanese. This is another factor enabling her rather remarkable English
reading progress. Explanation possibles for the differences in second
language literacy growth in these two girls - who are not genetically
related - was well remarked upon more generally at length in a previous
posting (Jenny Gutbezahl). Daughter 2 is also a born competitor; her older
sister is absolutely not. The individual differences count. Daughters 1
and 2 still use non-native-like expressions in English which they picked up
from native Japanese speakers. They misuse articles, are delayed in
irregular verb tense expression, and have so much cultural knowledge yet to
absorb before the content area reading (especially in social studies and
science) is fully available for their comprehension.

My own experience (above) and extensive SLA research reading do not support
immersion as resulting in anything near a natural or instantaneous 2L
learning. Are not the schooling/employment demands of today considerably
more complex than those encountered by grand- and great-grandparents? Fifty
to 75 years ago, it was possible for one to have full community standing,
respect, and earn a good living with only a fourth-grade English education
- and what was there to read on the farm but feedsacks, anyway? My
German-born grandfather was a completely happy and satisfied man. Today,
his lot, even as a farmer, would be much different.

A pre-schooler or primary child has much less language to learn to be
displaying native-like fluency than does a late elementary- or
secondary-age student. A submersion (no 2L support) school situation can
easily result in complete failure to make even minimal progress. In a six-
year study funded by the Toyota Foundation, I observed, videotaped, and
audiotaped nine Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, and English
speaking children submersed in Japanese elementary and junior high
classrooms...and interviewed them, their teachers, their parents, and did
so repeatedly over that period. Only one of these case studies remained in
school long enough to get to high school (Japanese law does not mandate
that foreign children attend school until a certain age or grade level).
Indeed, they could not even begin to read a Japanese high school entrance
exam, let alone answer any of the questions. If immersion/submersion were
sufficient for learning academic English, then to what shall we attribute
the huge language minority (especially Hispanic) drop-out rate from our
high schools?

In the 1999 August issue of *Atlantic Monthly,* Claude M.Steele of Stanford
makes a case for academic shortfall that is based upon what he and
colleagues have identified as "stereotype threat" theory, which reflects
their examinations of black students' college experiences. Recommended
reading. I personally and professionally believe that there are a variety
of such social factors playing a far larger part in low academic/language
achievement than is generally recognized.

Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, of George Mason University, have
presented a research synthesis of over 700,000 American school children's
English learning progress. Finding: although social language may develop
well within two to three years, academic parity with native speakers took
five to seven years - and for students over 12, it was unlikely that they
would reach this point before leaving secondary schooling.

Parents can volunteer to give short periods of individual tutoring and,
perhaps even more important, mentoring to second language students in their
neighborhood schools. What a welcoming statement this makes to a young
child surrounded with so much newness and so little language with which to
express him/herself.

As Jenifer pointed out, there are exceptional individuals whose 2L learning
rates are amazing, and there are exceptionally talented individuals in
every field of endeavor. Just because a few are able to display such
remarkable achievement does not mean everyone can...or perhaps we could all
be as good at collecting cash as Bill Gates.

OK, blaze away.


This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Jan 04 2000 - 12:33:17 EST