Native Language Resources

The reasearch I’ve done and that I’m familiar with shows that students better learn a second language when utilizing their first. Unfortunately, whoever created the law stating that in Arkansas, teachers can only teach in English is not familiar with this research. I’ve been reading recently about lessons that allow students to talk about higher level thinking concepts in their native language. Think of it like this: when learning content, students can make use of their native language, and use the second language for language learning. Furtheremore, if a student learns a concept (telling time, for instance) in his native language, when he learns the terminology and structures necessary to talk about those concepts in the second language, the conceptual knowledge automatically follows.

But our little law has done more than prevent us from utilizing this excellent language resource. It’s also emcouraged an anglocentric attitude–I occassionally hear teachers I respect use the word English as if it’s superior to other languages. Furthermore, I’ve heard them say things like, “I paired the Hispanic student with the Marshallese student so they can’t help each other in Spanish… or Marshallese.” Now, when the goal of the activity is using English to communicate, this is a useful strategy because the students are forced to use the target language to communicate. If the goal of the activity is, however, say, telling time, pairing students who speak the same language can be useful as it gives them a greater opportunity to bypass any language barriers between themselves and accessing the content. Thus, I have set about on a quest to create activities where students have the opportunity to utilize their native language.

There are two major setbacks in this plan. The first is that I am a monolingual English speaker, so the opportunities for me to use a student’s native language to help them are few and far between. The second is that we have two (non English) native languages in our school. Now, this in itself doesn’t seem like that much of a problem. Some schools have way more than two languages. But the vast majority of our ESL students speak Spanish, meaning we can’t always pair the others, who speak, yup, Marshallese. For those of you aren’t saying what? the setback here is that as easy as Spanish-English resources are to find, Marshallese-English resources are as difficult.

Thus, the next step in my plan was create resources. Seems easy enough. I can work with the kids to make bilingual posters. My super grand plan was to have each student write an illustrate a picture book in his or her native language as well as English. This way, I could allow the students to utilize their native languages, regardless of which languages these are, it would give me an opportunity to show I don’t believe that English is the only language we should value, I can get parents involved if students work with them on the native language portions, the kids have something to show off when they’re done, and I can keep cpoies as resources for future classes! Win-win-win-win-win situation.

For the Spanish speakers, this plan goes off without a hitch. They can work at whatever level they need, and most or all of them live with Spanish speakers who are literate in Spanish. Their parents are usually pretty attentive to their students’ schoolwork anyway. As a result, they can likely get parent help with the Spanish language section and teacher help on the English language section… The only hangup being how well students can actually translate from one language to another. But the Marshallese students potentially have a greater problem. Marshallese is a Polonesian language which, until recently had only an oral tradition. That means that the Marshallese students may not have parents who are literate in their native language. Furthermore, it is possible some parents, wanting their children to learn English neglect to offer their students proper Marshallese input, meaning the children are not learning English as a second language, so much as a delayed first, and have no real native language to draw on. (This is a problem sometimes with Native American families in the Western United States–they try to teach their children English, but do not know enough to do so effectively.)

Thus, I may be back to square one, if not square zero. Any ideas?

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