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Point & Click

At times, I’ve wondered what it feels like for a Latino student to arrive in this country not knowing a syllable of English. I’m not talking about Latino babies born in the States, or toddlers who come here with their parents. Language learned as a young tyke is much easier than it is for older kids.I’m talking about older kids and teens whose parents make the decision to collect the family and leave their homeland for the United States. I thought about this a lot during all the campaigning for Amendment 31 last fall. The amendment would have mandated how non-English-speaking students learn English. Proponents wanted a one-year, one-way method called “English immersion” to teach every kid how to speak and understand English. After one year, kids would be turned out to regular classrooms to fend for themselves.Amendment 31 failed, and so did a similar bill that got shot down last week. We won’t have to vote on how kids are taught English until 2004.But last week, I got a good idea of what it would feel like to be in a classroom where I was the only one who didn’t understand what was going on.Last Wednesday, I covered the Latino Youth Summit in Carbondale for this paper, a day-long event conducted almost entirely in Spanish. The conference was created to give Latino students information about women’s empowerment, domestic violence and suicide prevention, and child development – topics students who were polled said they wanted to know more about. The summit also connected students with college and university representatives, and with more than a dozen human service organizations. In the morning I attended a class about domestic violence. I was the only one in the room who didn’t speak or understand Spanish. I sat there as Monica Perez Rhodes of Advocate Safehouse spoke to the group in Spanish. I tried picking out words I knew, but I wasn’t getting it. Monica, who is bilingual, asked if I wanted her to translate. I figured since I was the only one who didn’t understand Spanish that I would hold up the presentation if she took out time for me – probably a similar thought many non-English-speakers feel. The class laughed together when Monica said something funny and showed seriousness and concern when she told them something grim. But I didn’t know. I couldn’t understand.Later, I went to an assembly with probably 100 students in attendance and a very animated, energetic MC who was fielding questions from the audience to 10 or so presenters. The MC was fun to watch even though I couldn’t tell you what he was saying. But everybody else could. I noticed a visual shift in the group when one of the questions was directed at a presenter who didn’t speak Spanish. As the presenter answered the question in English, I could physically see the crowd collectively break concentration. Some students started talking amongst themselves while others looked around the room, much as I had during the assembly. It wasn’t that they weren’t intelligent, or polite or interested. It’s just that they may not have understood.I took French for five years – three in high school and two in college – and I speak and understand just enough to ask the most basic questions and express the most rudimentary of ideas. Ask me to take a test in French and guess what? I am not going to do well. I’m not making a statement here about immigration, only my observations and my personal experience last week, being lost in a language that is not my own, and feeling removed from the energy of what was an exciting, interesting event. Carrie Click is a Post Independent staff writer. Her column runs on Tuesdays.


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