May 15, 2016

Schools can do More to Learn the Language of Support

By Sam Swayze

Imagine going to school in Kentucky without knowing English. You can’t understand the lessons; you’re foreign to the culture; and worst of all, your parents are no better off. 

In Kentucky, there are over 19,500 students who face such challenges every day. They are part of Kentucky’s English as a Second Language Program (ESL) which aims to provide a refuge for the Commonwealth’s English language learners. Kentucky’s ESL students hail from countries as diverse as Morocco and the Philippines, speaking an estimated 23 different languages. 

I had never seen these students before in my high school; for myself and most of my classmates, these students were unseen and unheard. But a series of conversations I had with English learners in my school when I signed up to tutor them for a community service requirement convinced me just how unfortunate this invisibility is. These students have a lot to teach us about how we teach them.

Morocco-born Lafayette senior, Meriem Voughroud, described one of the more intractable issues faced by students like her. Having barely spent a year in America, Meriem recalls a sixth grade science test where she was accused of cheating after looking up a word she could “barely read.” Her story illuminates a confounding issue for many ESL students: while many teachers are excellent transmitters of information, language and cultural barriers can—and often do—get in the way.

Shota Mastumoto, a Lafayette senior who was born in Japan, suggested that some of the challenges could be mitigated if there were more opportunities for students themselves to identify solutions. Shota explained how frustrated he and other students are by the limited translating materials available outside of the ESL classroom. In the same breath though, he offered a simple remedy: all that is needed is “one computer in the class,” with an open tab of Google Translate. Shota said that such an open screen would limit the barrier easing language transitions and ensuring effective support. 

I’ve had more of these conversations over the last few weeks and am consistently struck by the insight ESL students offer into how to make school work better to support their needs. I thought too about the added importance of supporting them to advocate for themselves, given the fact that their own parents tend to have more difficulty than others in navigating the school system. 

It was Meriem who most helped me understand that. The reason “ESL kids go unheard of” isn’t because of their capability, she explained, but because the parents are “trying to survive.” Many of them come from cultures where they’re taught explicitly not to “speak up whenever we’re not satisfied.”

While I am only several months into my tutoring experience and still learning from the ESL students I can now call my friends, I know for sure that their presence is a resource and not a liability in my school. We students, and the education system as a whole, can learn from them. And in trying to create a culture that supports all young people to learn, our compassion for those who are not native English speakers should not be lost in translation.

This op-ed ran as part of a package with several other Student Voice Team op-eds in the Courier Journal.

Sam Swayze

Sam Swayze

Sam is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. He previously was the Equity Outreach Director. Sam graduated from Lafayette High School in 2017 and Hillsdale College in 2021.