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Politics

'American' is not a language

Esther J. Cepeda on

For the learners, immersion in English-speaking classrooms is an important mechanism for sharpening new linguistic skills. For the fluently bilingual, there's little upside to speaking in a different language in front of peers and teachers who cannot understand what is being said.

I've seen it time and again: When people hear others speaking in a language not understood by everyone in the vicinity, they often believe that they are being talked about. This puts people on edge. You may think it's silly, but it's human nature.

(And, sadly, the paranoia is often warranted -- so many times I've witnessed people switch into Spanish for the sole purpose of talking smack about someone nearby. And yes, I've even seen Spanish-speaking students bad-mouth a teacher to her face, knowing the teacher would not understand their cutting words.)

As an educator who has led diverse classrooms where students spoke different languages, it was out of respect to all speakers that we agreed to stick to the common language -- but not at all times.

If there was one or more students who truly needed to speak in their native language to, for instance, get a clarification or meet an urgent need, that was acceptable. This is not some ultra-liberal teaching technique -- it's called respecting others' humanity and building trust among the members of a classroom community.

We should all weep for the poor multilingual students who have to withstand classrooms in which the teacher mistakes a language for her own personal notion about the superior culture students must mimic in order to gain her respect.

And pity the monolingual students who have such a poor role model at the helm of their classroom, too. Not only is their teacher a boor, but on top of that, she is blatantly misinforming others about why men and women go into the armed forces.

People who voluntarily join the military and make a promise to defend our country do so for many reasons, such as paying for college or developing discipline. But the reason I've most often heard is: to defend freedom.

Let's hope the students of Cliffside Park are soon free from the tyranny of so-called teachers who can't distinguish between our country's primary language and their own misguided ideas about what it means to be American.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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