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The fluency challenge

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Esther Cepeda
September 29, 2011
— I grew up bilingual in a city where as many as 64 languages were spoken by the public schools’ diverse student body. And like everyone else in our nation of immigrants, I’ve navigated language-barrier challenges such as difficulty communicating with new American co-workers and taking college courses taught by non-native English speakers with limited English skills.

Today, I take Korean sword-fighting lessons from a wonderful family of recent immigrants whose efforts to speak our language delight my ears. Their careful pronunciations always amaze me; it’s unbelievable how fast they’ve adapted to our way of speaking in just a few short years in this country.


My two sons, husband and I have been studying with them for more than a year, and I’m still sometimes driven almost to tears when I can’t count to 10 in Korean properly, or understand, despite their best efforts, the masters’ simple English instructions. I cherish the experience all the same.


As adults we can make choices about how we cope with situations where a speaker cannot communicate with us in clearly understandable English. Native English speakers have always reluctantly accepted new arrivals’ constantly maturing language skills, and this temporary melting pot frustration usually evolves into a robust American parlance.


That said, there’s no reason why public school students—especially those just learning how to speak English—should be in classrooms with teachers who don’t have a high level of English fluency.


Hopefully that won’t be the fate of Arizona’s young English language learners, now that the state has agreed to U.S. Departments of Justice and Education requests that it stop monitoring classrooms for mispronounced words and poor grammar by teachers whose own native language is not English.


The agreement was designed so Arizona could avoid further investigation and a possible federal lawsuit after a May 2010 allegation from a Phoenix-based organization claiming anti-Hispanic discrimination. The group, called the Civil Rights Center, said the state’s on-site monitoring of instructors’ language led to teachers being removed from classrooms based on their articulation.


A representative of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, told The Associated Press that even after following up on complaints of accent-related harassment, there was no evidence that such complaints were widespread. After nearly a decade of state spot-checking of teachers’ speech, the union had never heard of a teacher being fired because of the monitoring reports. Instead, teachers had been offered support to improve their English speaking skills.


Regardless of where you stand on “bilingual education”—far too often that means that students for whom English is a second language are segregated into classrooms where all subjects are taught in their native language, with rare opportunities to be immersed in English—we should be able to agree that all public school teachers providing instruction in English should have excellent speaking skills.


But that’s not always the case. When I became a bilingual teacher in Illinois, I was expected to teach mostly in Spanish. I had to pass a test to prove I possessed high fluency in Spanish but was not tested for English.


Teachers who didn’t get their undergraduate degree at a school where the content was taught in English were required to pass a state-administered English fluency test, but judging from some of the speech I witnessed firsthand, that bar was woefully low. I had many colleagues, both in schools and in master’s-level education classes, who, when they participated in English courses or provided English-language instruction to students, did so with very difficult-to-understand English.


You don’t need a graduate degree in education to know that all students need language-rich environments. Learners of second languages need those environments in English and need to be exposed to excellent modeling of the dialect.


How do teachers who don’t speak great English provide that environment for their students? Many don’t. As a high school teacher, I had U.S.-born citizens in my “bilingual” classes who, after years of such schooling, could barely speak any English.


In Arizona, individual school districts and charter schools will now have the responsibility of testing teachers’ English fluency in accordance with state and federal legal requirements.


Let’s hope their efforts don’t fall victim to more political correctness that eclipses common sense and instead paints the goal of ensuring that all of America’s students graduate from high school with adequate English reading, writing and speaking skills as some sort of ethnic discrimination plot.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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