Learning in Four Languages

This story happened during a homework check-in English language arts class. The homework was about verbs in the past tense. Rhonda’s homework was questioned by Josefina. “She wrote, ‘The girl had went around the corner’ in her homework. I wrote the girl had gone.” In context, Josefina was using the correct Standard English tense. Rhonda was referring to African-American English.

The students’ teacher did not know how to deal with this discussion, and she brought it to my attention. I, in turn, brought the question to the class. Out of the responses we created a language game with our homework assignment. “If you’re really good in our class,” I said, “you can learn four languages here: African-American English, Spanglish, Standard English, and Standard Spanish. How many people here speak one of these languages?”

We laughed and enjoyed a lively discussion comparing the similarities and differences among the four languages. We highlighted the creative nature of Spanglish, the African cultural roots of African-American English, and the structure, rules, and academic importance of the standard languages. Finally, we were able to work through most of the verb tenses in the homework assignment in four languages.

Once the children felt validated in their own language they could offer their expertise to the success of our class in four languages. As they felt at ease with their talk in our classroom, their written language blossomed.