Voices Vol 41 No 4


Between Two Worlds

By Tina Kern

Recently, during Back to School Night, I greeted and escorted parents of our ELLs to various classrooms.  I always enjoy being able to help our parents participate in school activities.  Yet, there is always an undercurrent that separates the “bilingual world” from the monolingual English world – like an equator across our corridors.  This division, between those that understand the system and those that try to navigate it, often unsuccessfully, is yet another obstacle for our parents.

To walk in the shoes of our students, at home and at school, can be an elucidating experience.  Hopefully, many of us have eased the discomfort of incomprehensible information that bombards our parents. We ache, at times, when we view our parents, seemingly trying to shrink into the walls.  They come to school to show support and help their children, and then, feel isolated until one of us, or someone who speaks their language, urges them to join the mélange. Many of you have experienced the duplicity of being on the inside and the outside almost simultaneously, the feeling of being almost accepted.  How many students, or adults, have traded traditions or shunned parents’ values in order to bask in peer approval?  Our students are in the midst of varying levels of acculturation.  Some can navigate the duality, like a child of divorce that learns to flow seamlessly from their mother’s household to their father’s.  Yet many never learn the dance, or misstep, before finding their way.  Our ELLs are learning and earning their place in our school community.  They find their way and hopefully begin to feel a part of both their cultural and school worlds.  But, for some, at what cost?

Consider the world of some of our ELLs.  At home, when the doors close on the outside world, they and their families can be comfortable within the confines of their homes.  They can share their native food and traditions among friends and family.  They can follow traditions without feeling “different.”

Outside, the environment changes. In supermarkets, where various cultures mix, language becomes “the great divide.” Children translate for parents. They shoulder responsibilities that American children might not experience at such a young age.  In school, often, once again, ELLs accompany their parents, as they try to bridge the gap between those that confidently stride our halls toward their children’s classrooms, and the insecure that are lost without their children’s guidance. Imagine the pain of being a burden on your own child because of an inability to do what seems a trivial task to others.

How do the children view their duty?  Some might be proud to help their parents, showing how they have learned their new language.  Others, in the beginning, help their parents, and then, slowly, realize that their parents rely upon them to accompany them to doctors, appointments, conferences, etc.  They might resent their loss of childhood independence from such responsibility.  Slowly, so slowly, as they get older they might begin to disrespect the role they play.  They might be afraid to invite their parents to classrooms, be ashamed of their parents’ inability to participate in special events, and so they begin to separate their home lives from their school lives, creating two worlds.

Many times in their lives they feel “between two worlds."  Ask an adult ELL, as I did, or even a first generation American, born here, yet still “between two worlds”.  How comfortable did they feel growing up?  Did they feel estranged or “different?"  Do they feel different even now… a little uncomfortable at times?

We want our ELLs to respect their and their parent’s heritage culture.  As our ELLs mature and move on from grade to grade, do they still respect their parents as they should?  Do they continue to speak their first language as they integrate their second language?  Do they fully respect their parents as people struggling to do their best in a foreign culture with different rules?  Are they proud to bring their American friends to their family’s home and share their culture?  Or do they try feverishly to acculturate and leave their home cultures behind?

I am so disappointed, when I hear some of my former students say, “I don’t speak Spanish (or French, etc.) anymore.  I speak English.  I’ve forgotten how to say many things in my parent’s language.”   In order to feel part of their school community, they have rejected their heritage, and are ashamed of their roots.  How sad!  They felt they had to reject that which represents their parents’ values in exchange to being accepted in their circle of friends. Let’s help others be sensitive to our ELLs and how they negotiate their “two worlds." They sometimes have one foot in one world, and their other foot in the other cultural world.  Everyone should be cognizant of how our students are living in both worlds; how their parents are trying to navigate the paths of their new country.     

When we teach English as a second language, we are teaching the whole child.  We are teaching the child that enters our classroom each day, as well as the child that goes home and shuts the door against stresses that plague his daytime dreams and nighttime fears.

What is accomplished every day, and mundane for us, is stressful for our second language families.  Remember that what we consider a small favor to our ELLs and their family often is a huge step toward their future as part of our community.  Remember that as we lend a hand to our ELLs and their families, we are supporting them in their journey to success. 

This year I will try to bridge the gap by helping the parents learn the educational jargon in order to help their children at home.  I will keep you informed about my progress.

Until next time…

Tina Kern
ESL/Bilingual Middle School SIG
Morris School District