231. English as a Second Language

As children learn to speak, they experience ups and downs. It’s exciting to see the reactions they get from people who already know how to speak. People often make a big deal out of it. It makes the new speakers want to speak more. But there’s frustration, too. Sometimes there’s something important a child is trying to say, and the listeners, stuck in their rigid linguistic patterns, don’t get it. Everyone else understands each other, but no one understands what the novice is saying. They guess, but their guesses are way off, and the frustration builds.
Imagine emerging victoriously from this struggle only to find, a little later, that you’re in a strange land where most people don’t understand a word you’re saying. Maybe your family is with you, and maybe there’s a teacher who speaks your language, but most people can’t
understand you. You may have already learned to read and write (another intense struggle, for many). But books, signs, etc. are printed in the new language.
There’s joy in learning the first language, and there’s joy in learning the second. In some situations, the child learning a second language is seen as an expert – someone who has mastered what other children haven’t begun. If adults and children are sensitive and supportive, the child learning English as a second language feels respected, and is motivated to meet the new challenge. It helps when other children are facing the challenge with them.
But it isn’t easy. I’ve seen some children, trying to be supportive, treat newcomers as they treat their younger siblings. Children sometimes have trouble imagining that someone who “doesn’t even know English” could possibly be their intellectual equal. I’ve seen surprised looks when newcomers who haven’t known English have solved math problems with no difficulty – sometimes surpassing children quite fluent in English. And art, music, movement, and more can be full of similar surprises. Children know how hard it was or is to learn English, and when they meet someone who hasn’t learned it much yet, they may consciously or unconsciously think inferior intelligence is a factor.
The teachers who teach English as a second language haven’t necessarily mastered it themselves. If a child comes to Nebraska knowing only Basque, schools are lucky if they find any teacher who even knows Basque. They can’t really insist on hiring someone who knows Basque and can also speak English fluently without an accent. And so children may learn English mainly from someone who has a Basque accent. Foreign accents result from differences among phonemes, and happen whether or not the teacher has a foreign accent, but the teacher’s accent is a model.
I once spoke with parents of a child who, I thought, was learning English as a second language. They told me that English was the child’s first language. They had taught it to him, knowing they’d be moving to the United States. But English was not their first language. I suggested to them that English as a second language was this child’s first language. They

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