Trouble with translation
As ESL students adapt to new circumstances in the United States, a high proportion of these students are recommended to special education classes.
April 22, 2014
The autumn leaves fall slowly on the playground; it’s a chilly afternoon under the shadows of the trees on the park. A little girl with short brown hair and warm chocolate eyes laughs as she picks a dry leaf from the ground, examines it, looking for what makes it special, and then proceeds to put it down neatly onto a pile resting next to her which consist of all the other leaves she has already decided weren’t worthy enough to be added to her special collection back home.
She proceeds to do this five more times without looking around, without any words, just a smile and an objective in mind.
Her mother sits at a bench a little bit further away, reading a book. She glances up at the end of every page she reads and a small smirk escapes her dry lips when she sees the girl, even with her oldest son and daughter to look after the girl, she is still a mother, so her eyes keep drifting off in the direction of the little pale child.
Ines, with her small fragile hands, swift legs, pale skin and pink cheeks now sets her young, naïve eyes on a commotion happening behind the bench her mother is still sitting at; smiles broadly when some boys that look to be around her age seem to be getting closer while playing tag, finally one of them runs up to her:
“Hey there! Want to play with us?” says the little boy.
“No sé qué estás diciendo, no hablo ingles,” replies the little girl with a frown.
The boy laughs thinking it is a joke, all he heard was gibberish, so he asks again. Ines shakes her head, answers him the same thing as before, but the boy gets tired of her silly game, turns back and runs away.
Ines’s sister approaches her slowly, puts her hand delicately on her shoulder.
“Estas bien?” she asks, concerned that the smile is fading from the brown eyed girls’ face.
“No.” A one word answer, the same in both languages.
The faded memory of the little encounter with the first English speaker of her age still roams Ines’s mind from time to time. She describes it with the vocabulary of an ordinary eight year old girl; sometimes she even uses adjectives in Spanish because that way is easier for her to describe the incident. Reading her story and listening to it are two completely different things.
When you read someone’s tale, you can’t judge the color of the child’s face, you can’t hear her little, faded accent, or see how she looks up when she can’t quite remember how to say a particular word in English. When you read a child’s perspective of the situation, you can’t see the way her eyes grow dull after reciting a painful memory, and you can’t see her hands play with her hair when she finally expresses how sad it made her feel the first time she walked into an American school.
“She was always very social. Before we moved [to the U.S] she would play with other boys and girls out in the street until she got tired or hungry, and I could always hear the other children chant her name while she went inside the house, asking her to stay and play with them a little longer. She got her social skills from her father for sure, he can make friends with anyone in a second. I always found it kind of fascinating,” Ines’s mother tells The Glen Echo.
The family moved from South America to the United States when Ines was four years old. There are five members in the family, two girls and one boy. They all spoke English before coming into the country, except for Ines, the youngest.
“I am technically English, I think. I was born in Oxford, England, [but] since I lived my whole life in Argentina, I don’t consider myself English,” says Pablo, Ines’s father. “But I, and my wife, knew we wanted our children to speak English anyway, it is a very useful skill, knowing many languages, and English is also spoken almost worldwide… I know more than just two languages, and so does my wife, but I guess the kids can manage with only two for now.”
Over the last few weeks, Ines has met with administratorsmore than once; her although case seems normal (many children move away and into another different reality for them), for each family the transition seems alien and new.
“I’m a shy person.”
Even though the school’s report says the opposite, there is a trend in her behavior. All of her opening statements for each interview are somewhat similar: she always looks down or sits in silence, or she makes some small remark about her shyness, and then, after every lengthy talk, the interviewer would reveal that, actually, the 8-year-old girl sitting across from them is a very talkative young girl who would warm right up and answer all of their questions right away.
“We received a phone call from Coleman school almost a month ago, the teacher wanted to talk to us about her [Ines’s] conduct in class,” says Adriana, Ines’s mother.
Ines had been recommended for Special Education classes to supplement her English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.
“She explained to us her concern for Ines’s further development. Apparently they were doing a class activity in which a video of space was presented, and the children had to tell the teacher what they saw… Ines answered that she saw eyes, eyes from fierce animals looking down at her, and the teacher was very concerned, it seems like having an active imagination when you are eight years old is a source of concern in the American public education.”
From that moment on, Ines has been interviewed by three different people, and an evaluation for each encounter has been filed and is now in the hands of both concerned parents.
“We don’t really know what to do with this information,” says Pablo, concerned. “Our friends from here [the U.S] tell us that it’s a minor thing… that we shouldn’t worry about it too much. But the professionals that we know from home [Argentina] keep saying that we should refuse such treatment, after all, she is only one point below average.”
Ines isn’t the first ESL elementary child who has been tested for a Special Education program in the United States; it seems like being below average and speaking two languages can be a very common connection made by teachers.
“They told my parents I had to go to Special Education when I was in Elementary school, too,” says Maria, a student in Glen Rock High School whose parents emigrated from a Spanish speaking country, as well.
“Looking back on it, I don’t think I really needed it, my ‘performance’ in school wasn’t poor, but my speech and the way I formulated sentences was. I would sometimes forget how to say something in English, so I would say it in my common language instead,” she recounts. “After doing this for a while, the school sent my parents a letter saying that I would be better off by being in the Special Ed program.”
“The teacher also recommended both of [my parents] to encourage English at home, since that might ease me into school better, and so, very slowly, I started to forget my Spanish. Today, I answer my parents in English, even if they initiate the conversation in Spanish. Sure, I still text my mom in Spanish, but I don’t really speak it anymore, and I am certainly not very fluid nor comfortable using it all the time. I have successfully assimilated to the American culture… And I am not sure if it was worth losing a language to achieve it,” says Maria, recalling her experience with the program a few years back.
In the modern ESL classroom, the teachers encourage their students to practice their culture with pride, and they also encourage the parents to talk to the children in their native language. Nowadays, knowing more than one language is very beneficial and psychological theory also proposes that children are able to learn a language perfectly if they learn it before they reach their thirteenth birthday, regardless of whether they’re learning one or two.
What might be confounding for many is that while ESL programs encourage the difference in the culture, other teachers still send concerned letters to parents, saying that English should be spoken constantly so that the child can integrate more easily. Some, however, question these methods. In other countries, children grow up learning many different dialects without a problem.
In Europe, children are encouraged to know more than one language; some four to six year old kids even know three languages at the time.
“My cousin, Allen, he is almost four now I think… He lives in Italy, and he knows how to talk in Spanish, Italian, and a bit of English; his school encourages this, it doesn’t punish it by calling it a ‘learning disability’ every time the kid struggles to spell or read out loud; We are in 2014 now, there is no need to assimilate the foreigners into the culture anymore. Each person should embrace both cultures, not limit themselves to one. Being different is not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you are broken; it means you are special, so they should stop trying to make kids ‘fit in’ they don’t need to,” says Ines’s brother, expressing his frustration with the system.
Practice makes perfect
Ines’s brother spoke to The Glen Echo about the first North American person he and his siblings met when he was a teenager.
It was a hot morning in August, the smell of summer thick in the air, when a strange-looking woman walked in through the front door with a suit filled with coloring books and what seemed to be a mosaic made out of stickers. The two teenagers looked at each other and proceeded to roll their eyes. Here we go, they thought.
One hour goes by and Ines, young and energetic, found the coloring books and the games are all fun and interesting. She didn’t understand what the lady was babbling about, so she laughed it off and kept playing. When she got stuck in a part, she asked her sister if she could explain what the lady was saying; her sister translated with a smile, and Ines resumed her playing.
“Life for an expatriate is like looking at the world through 3D glasses, on one side you have your homeland, the culture you live by, your family and your old friends, your native language. But on the other side, a completely different color,” Ines’s brother says. “You have your future, America and its opportunities, all the friends you will make, the new language and culture. It is hard to live with both parallel cultures, so learn to combine them and make your life a mix of both colors! Take what is beautiful in both places and make your life a unique and special color, because this is a chance that not everyone gets.”
“We didn’t pay much attention to her,” admits the teenager. “We just assumed she was talking from a script. After all, she wasn’t an immigrant.”
Ines’s brother laughs at the memory, he admits that the woman was right, and that he wishes he could go back and “smack myself in the head and open my eyes to the reality of the situation – that this wasn’t going to be easy. Because people tell you and you don’t believe it, not here in the land of opportunities.”
New opportunities, old problems
“All of my friends go [to Coleman School] and the rest of my friends… I know them from ballet, jazz and gymnastics. I want to play soccer when it’s not cold out; I think it will be fun!” Ines said, talking about the exciting activities in her life.
Yet Ines doesn’t like talking about her first years in the States, and she doesn’t want to talk about her first school either, Academy of Our Lady.
“Her teacher wanted Ines to do Pre-K again, because she said Ines had a hard time understanding and following the class. Maybe she was right, but I still think our best decision was to take her out of that school and switching her into Coleman. She has been much happier since she switched schools,” says Ines’s mother, Adriana.
“The only thing I remember about our first years was everyone being sad and concerned. We all struggled with the difference in the language and the culture. In the High School, they threatened to remove the ESL program for a while. My eldest daughter was freaking out about it… it was the only place where she felt it was okay to be different, and they were taking it away,” adds Ines’s father, Pablo.
While everyone was concerned about their own problems and how to overcome them, Ines was left to her own devices.
“I don’t remember what my friends would say [about her speaking Spanish].” After a pause Ines resumes her tale, recalling what they said. “Oh!” she said as if suddenly recalling. “I would come home and cry.”
Ines stopped and looked down again.
“My other school, I don’t remember it a lot. Only my friend Amy and my friend Abby, they were my friends. Amy is still my good friend we have ballet together… she is funny. But I didn’t like my other school,” she says. “The teacher would look at me when I said something in Spanish and go like ‘what?’ and would take me aside and yell at me, punish me, she would say loudly ‘what are you saying?’ And the other children would laugh and say it too, ‘what are you saying Ines?!’ It made me feel sad and like a stranger, and everyone was so mean to me because I couldn’t speak as well as my classmates. But then I learned! Because I went to Coleman!”
“Amy was Carolinas’ first friend here, they were always together. Amy’s family is from Korea, and her mother is one of the sweetest people I know. Now Ines goes to ballet with Amy and her cousin Katherine. They are all good friends, but not like before,” says Adriana. “She has some new friends now, from Coleman, and they don’t seem to even notice that Ines cant ‘properly collect her thoughts’ like the report we were handed says.”
A month ago, it was a sunny but cold afternoon. Ines and her ‘BFF,’ as they call each other, laugh and run up and down the stairs, chasing a yellow fat cat, the family pet.
“Ines! Stop running you are going to fell!” yells Ines’s mom, Adriana.
Ines and her friend laugh even louder.
“Mom! You said it wrong! It’s ‘fall’!” Ines rolls her eyes at her mother; she dresses like the rest of her friends now and goes to many after school activities, like many other Americans in her town. Her English is almost perfect; her accent, unrecognizable.
“Ines, why does your mom talk weird? Is she trying to be funny?” asks her friend.
Ines blushes and explains that English isn’t her family’s first language with a stern tone. She plants her feet, ready to defend her mother against any criticism.
Even though she is young, she understands how badly one can feel by being different, but she has come a long way since she first arrived into the states. There is still a long way to go before she makes peace with what makes her different, explains Ines’s brother.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the people who were interviewed for this article.