Educators Struggle to Teach Students Whose English is Infused with Spanish

Courses help Latinos reduce their accent.


This is the second of a three-part series exploring Latino dialects. In the first part, experts discuss how second generation Latinos in the U.S. are forming their own accents and dialects. Read it here.

Iris Huerta was born in Guadalajara, Mexico but was raised in East Los Angeles. When she was in high school, her family moved to a neighborhood where the Latina became a minority. Then an AP English student, Huerta was surprised when she had to convince her new school that she was fluent in English.

“They made me take a standardized test and a listening test,” she recalled. “They straight out told me if you hadn’t told us you spoke Spanish at home you wouldn’t have to take the test.”

Educators are increasingly concerned about Latino students like Huerta. Some don’t speak Spanish but use a dialect from Latino neighborhoods in areas such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Houston. Their speech rings with traces of Spanish accents, rhythm and grammar.

As the population of Latino English speakers increases, educators are struggling with ways to increase test scores and impart standard English. The methods behind meeting these goals span the map. Where some schools are experimenting with culturally sensitive curricula, others are not.  

Still the search for better performance continues, in some cases at the state level. Texas was so concerned with these students that last year the state government commissioned a study to determine how to raise their competency in standard English.

The results indicated that they way we teach these English speakers to use standard English isn’t effective. One recommendation was to encourage continued teacher training in dialect and language diversity.

The way you express ideas is different in the Hispanic culture. A lot of times the thinking process and writing would be labeled as roundabout and … the way that teachers would handle that would be to say 'this is wrong.'

- Hannah Pick, who helped develop a plan in North Carolina

“There is this thinking that all we need to do is push standard English all the time,” said linguist Jeffrey Reaser, who co-authored the Texas study. “What we see is that approach does not work because it doesn’t take into account the cultural background and individual identity. It is a flawed ideal but it seems that is the common sense.”

Linguists have long held that dialects are not easily shed because they are so dependent upon individual identity. So, they counter, it makes more sense to embrace their way of speaking.

This principle is currently being used in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Academic English Mastery Program. This program has been helping African-American and Latino students who don’t use standard English score higher on exams.

The premise of this program is that there is a vernacular speech that students use at home and an academic one used in textbooks and at school, and the rules are slightly different. Students using this method can consciously point out grammatical discrepancies between the two dialects. For example, they might use a double negative at home (I didn’t do nothing makes sense following Spanish-language grammar) but they would recognize that academic English doesn’t follow that pattern.

Students are more receptive to this method, academics say, because there is no value placed on either dialect, but an acknowledgement that there is a difference.

One small step toward teaching language awareness has been taken in North Carolina. This project, a result of a larger study looking at the impact of the recent Latino boom in the state and language that Reaser is a part of, is primarily focused on getting teachers -- and classmates -- acquainted with the culture of recent Latino immigrants who are just learning English. One exercise involves pairing the students up, each unaware of what the other is instructed to do during their conversation.

The idea is reinforced by video and show that each culture behaves differently when they communicate. Recent immigrants may not be aware of these differences.

“The way you express ideas is different in the Hispanic culture,” said Hannah Pick, who developed the 20-hour lesson plan. “A lot of times the thinking process and writing would be labeled as roundabout and … the way that teachers would handle that would be to say 'this is wrong'.”

But some schools handle things very differently. When a low proportion of students learning English in Arizona failed to pass state standardized exams in reading, writing and math, Arizona’s State Department of Education began monitoring teachers’ fluency in English. According to the Arizona Republic, some monitors noted that Latino teachers misused grammar and had accents.

Because of the monitors, some teachers were transferred or offered classes to help their their pronunciation and grammar.

The state has changed its policy after federal officials found the monitoring subjective. Monitors no longer look for language fluency, according to reports.

Monitoring fluency requires defining that term and that isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Linguist Carmen Fought recalls early in her career being asked to put students who didn’t know Spanish into classes for limited English proficiency because the test would mark off for answers such as “he didn’t say nothing.”

“That’s not because of Spanish, that’s because of dialect,” explained Fought. “It’s wrong according to the school but there’s nothing inherently wrong about it, it’s just not the socially privileged dialect. For kids who know Chicano English or African-American English, we aren’t measuring the right things....What dialect do you speak and are you good with language those are two different questions.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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