Bilingual city can be an obstacle to learning English

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EL PASO, Texas — It’s a beautiful thing that a majority of El Paso is bilingual.  I don’t think I have ever been anywhere else in the United States where so many people can speak more than one language. Only a minority of the population is monolingual. For those readers who are bilingual, being bilingual can open a lot of doors in other cities, but you can also be very problematic for a person trying to learn English.

I realized this while I was tutoring an adult ESL class. Our students would often be reluctant to speak English during class and on field trips. In my hopes of preventing their reluctance, on my first day tutoring the class I advised them to always speak English with a strong voice and have confidence. I also told them to practice English outside of class.

At first it was a little frustrating that even after my advice, none of our students would speak English when they talked with each other during class. It always seemed to ruin the point of trying to teach them English. After all, they were there to learn English, and the best way to learn a language is to use it whenever you have the opportunity.

What better opportunity than in a classroom of your peers where no one can judge you?

At first, we had a pretty good idea of why our students were so reluctant to speak English. They lacked the confidence necessary to use it effectively. The truth is that no one wants to look or sound foolish in front of other people. It is especially embarrassing when you are doing your best to speak with someone and make mistakes in pronunciation or grammar.

I know this from my experiences trying to speak in other languages with their natives. I’m positive that I made a huge ass out of myself every time I attempted to speak French and German. Unfortunately, the only way to learn something is by jumping in and making mistakes.

Our students faced greater challenges than looking foolish. They would have to find a way to practice their English with someone who could more easily speak to them in Spanish. How could they get a bilingual person to speak to them in English when it would be so much more difficult than Spanish? How would they not resort to their first language when it is so much easier and natural for them?

Even with their bilingual family members and friends, they had trouble. Some of my students told me that whenever they tried to speak English with their children or friends, they were laughed at when they made a mistake. In the worst cases, they were told to just speak Spanish. In these cases, the family or friends inadvertently denied them the right to learn English.

After hearing my students’ stories of rejection, I remembered all the times that I had seen or experienced the same thing. There have been many times that I have seen people attempt to speak English with a bilingual cashier, waiter, or stranger. After a moment of impatience, the bilingual person will tell them to speak Spanish. At work, I am also asked by customers in the first struggle whether or not I speak Spanish.

I often wrestle with the idea of whether or not English is necessary and important here. Is allowing people who live here with limited knowledge of English to speak Spanish really helpful to them? Should we ignore the fact that the language of power in this country is English? We are on the border, and so many people are able to live without speaking any English.

Spanish is also part of El Paso’s cultural identity. It would be a tragedy if that identity were assimilated like most other cultures in the United States have been. On the other hand, many people who don’t know English in the United States are exploited by their employers. They are also limited to interacting with people who speak their language. They are excluded from the best opportunities because the best are usually only advertised and available to those who speak English.

In the long run, it seems that we are doing more harm than good to our family members, friends, and neighbors by not encouraging them to use English. It’s true that they can survive in El Paso without English. However, by not encouraging them to learn English, we are dooming them to a life of missed opportunities and social marginalization.

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3 Comments

  1. I once heard that every language you learn is like having a passport for the countries and parts of the world where that language is spoken in. However, I agree with you in that learning a new language is no easy task for many adults. My mom spent years going to night school, and still prefers to speak primarily in Spanish at home and with her friends. Although she has learned enough grammar and vocabulary to get around, she has many challenges speaking it out loud. I have simply grown to accept that Spanish is her dominant language, and that we will continue to have to translate for her when necessary.

    I am glad you addressed the shame caused to adult English language learners when they are teased and laughed at by their own friends and family members. This is disheartening, because instead of getting support and encouragement, many who struggle to learn a new language are often discouraged. Having access to learning a language and then not using it is like having a passport and not leaving one’s comfort zone.

  2. Kelly Gordon on

    Beautifully written, Greg. I could not agree more. Spanish and English are paramount to this country.

  3. Totally true. I speak English as a second language. El Paso is the worst city for a native Spanish speaker to learn English. Thank god I already spoke English before coming here, but still I don’t really use it. It is way more comfortable to speak Spanish.

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