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Second language fluency: not an ‘all or nothing’ proposition

Virginia Nicolai
Colorado Mountain College assistant professor of ESL

I feel fortunate that English is my native language. English has become a global language; you can use it all over the world.

In fact, you don’t need to be completely fluent in a language to communicate with the people who speak it. When it comes to languages, you cannot categorize people into only two groups: those who are fluent in the language and those who do not know the language at all. There is a continuum of language acquisition, so that learners progress through many different stages of communicative development.

Before I came to the Roaring Fork Valley, I spent a year and a half teaching English in Japan. I only knew a few words of Japanese when I landed in the country, placing me very close to the “not knowing the language at all” side of the continuum. Since the Japanese language uses three character sets, instead of the Roman alphabet, and I could only read one of them, I was not even literate. It was a constant struggle to comprehend the language I encountered, but I found that I was able to function by slowly deciphering new words and symbols. I learned the language because I had to.

Most of the English as a Second Language students at Colorado Mountain College can relate to this experience. The immigrants who have settled in the Roaring Fork Valley come into contact with the English language on a daily basis and have picked up the necessary vocabulary to live their lives. They often understand more than they can express, since receptive language skills like listening and reading are usually mastered before the more difficult productive skills of speaking and writing. When I tell someone that I’m an ESL teacher, inevitably their first question is, “Do you speak Spanish?” I don’t. More accurately I’m somewhere in the middle of the Spanish language continuum, but I don’t need to speak Spanish in class since my students know a lot more English than they think they do.

While it is possible to get by without being fluent, the non-native speakers of English who enroll in CMC’s ESL classes want to take their survival English skills to the next level. They are not traveling; they have settled down and are establishing roots. They want to speak English more confidently in order to participate more actively in the community, advance in their careers, and achieve their educational goals. Many want to get more involved in their children’s educations by talking with the teachers at school and helping with homework. Others want to further their own education by obtaining a GED or taking college-level classes at CMC.

Communication can be difficult even without a language barrier. By improving their English skills, ESL students are taking the steps to strengthen communication throughout our community.

Virginia Nicolai is an assistant professor of ESL at Colorado Mountain College. ESL classes in Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs start the week of May 13. Class schedules are available at http://www.coloradomtn.edu/web/classes/–/schedule.


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