Me no English!

My volunteer experience as an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at Chicago’s Chinatown gives me new insights into the lives of immigrants. I volunteered to teach ELL classes because I realized that teaching English is the one act I could do that would have tangible results. Knowing English is the key to getting better jobs, understanding and defending one’s rights, and moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

As an ELL teacher and former ELL student, I know how difficult it is to teach English to Chinese immigrants. Many sounds are not found in the Chinese language system. For example, my students had trouble pronouncing words with the letters “r,” “z,” and “l.” Despite their lack of time and their demanding jobs, my students worked very hard at learning English. They memorized many vocabulary words but they could not properly pronounce these words. They carried their Chinese-English dictionaries with them everywhere, but they lived in the sheltered Chinatown community and did not have many opportunities to converse in English.

My adult students made enormous sacrifices in coming to America and they resigned themselves to a life of low-paying jobs with little chance of advancement.1 They work hard to achieve the American dream, if not for themselves but at least for their children. Their hopes reside in their children, who will likely ascend the American success ladder and leave poverty behind forever.

My volunteer experience also allows me to develop friendships with younger students and to read their reflections on their educational experiences. Many are experiencing the same frustrations I had once felt as a new immigrant. Some of my students have gone so far as to say that they feel “blind, deaf, and mute” in the classrooms. The reality is that many Chinese immigrants are silent in the classrooms because they cannot understand English and are ashamed of being teased by their classmates if they open their mouths. One girl from Hong Kong was taking college classes but could not understand her professors. She wished that her high school ELL program had prepared her better for college, where the readings were much denser than the teenage novels she had read in her ELL classes.

Other students wrote of how different it is to adjust to the American school system, where students are expected to speak up in class instead of merely memorizing facts, and where teachers are not clear authority figures. Their concerns resonated with my personal experiences: teachers at my elementary school in Taiwan had “beating sticks” and we were told to obey rather than to question authority. I also grew up in an environment where I merely wrote down what the teacher said rather than analyzing the contents.

My experiences as an ELL student and ESL teacher have made me realize the challenges of reforming ELL. While it is easy to argue for more qualified ELL teachers and more funding, realistically, these proposals are not likely to be approved given limited resources and a lack of interest in immigrants.

Therefore, it is essential to consider more creative approaches to ELL education, including changing the grouping of ELL and mainstream students, finding ways to integrate ELL students into the school, and building partnerships with the community.

As immigrants continue to come to the United States, I hope that schools can become welcoming places for students and that teachers can inspire and encourage immigrant children to work toward their dreams. ■


1. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends (1997).

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November 2012Volume 23Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)