Original URL: http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2004/03/21/english_immersion_hits_home/

English immersion hits home
The Boston Globe
Mar. 21, 2004
By Monica Rhor

Spanish speakers fear erosion of culture

Third in a series of occasional articles chronicling one family's experience with English immersion.

Cindy Umana scrunched her face in displeasure. ``Talk in English. I don't understand you in Spanish,'' the 7-year-old ordered, speaking to the after-school program volunteer whose Spanish was halting and heavily accented.

``In English!'' chimed Jonathan Bejar, 7, one of the other first-graders sitting at a folding table in the basement cafeteria of the Otis Elementary School in East Boston.

``In Spanish!'' retorted Alonso Martinez, in a playful contradiction of his two classmates. He flashed a quick grin, revealing two missing front teeth, then went back to his homework assignment. ``One-two-three-four,'' Alonso counted in English, adding the number of stick figures he had painstakingly drawn on a sheet of paper.

He was answering a math problem labeled ``Feet, fingers, and legs.'' The question: There are seven people in my family. How many feet are there?

Jonathan, his mischievous eyes dancing, shouted out an answer: ``Thirteen!''

Alonso shook his head: ``Uh-uh. Fourteen.''

Three flights up, in Room 13, the boys' mothers were in an afternoon English class run by Boston Excels and the Home for Little Wanderers. There, they and other parents were laboring to master the new language, stumbling through the hard R's, irregular verbs, and tricky diphthongs of English.

But here, in the basement, their two sons bantered in English with the quick clip of an Abbott and Costello comedy routine. First, over math homework, then while playing with a Playmobil zoo set. They teased. They joked. They stuck out tongues and moaned: ``You're gross!'' ``No, you are!''

``I talk English at school and Spanish at home because my mother doesn't know English,'' Alonso said with a shrug. ``But I don't like speaking Spanish.''

A mother worries...

The questions flutter constantly in Carmen Martinez's mind:

Are her children learning English so quickly and completely that it will end up blotting out their native language and culture?

If that happens, will there be a day when her three sons and only daughter become so fluent in English, and remain so rudimentary in Spanish, that they no longer understand their parents, who are fluent only in Spanish?

Last school year, Otis Elementary was a bilingual school where children who spoke little or no English received classes in their native languages. As required by the state's new English immersion law, the school began teaching students almost entirely in English in September.

Before school began, Carmen and her husband, Genaro, worried that the abrupt switch would become a roadblock in their children's education. But, so far, that has not happened.

Alonso's grades are holding steady. Third-grader Yovanny, who was transferred to Adams Elementary in September, is thriving in his new school, where smaller classes and more intensive instruction seem to be helping him tame a thorny learning disability.

Both schools have made efforts to reach out to non-English-speaking parents, allaying another one of Carmen Martinez's fears. School notices, letters, and report cards are still translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and other native languages. Interpreters are on hand during open house and parent-teacher meetings.

Now, however, new worries have surfaced.

Alonso, who spoke scant English before going into first grade, now prefers it to his native Spanish. He speaks English in the classroom, on the playground with friends, when he's rough-housing with Yovanny and their older brother, Edgar.

Edgar, 15, a 10th grader at East Boston High School, was in a bilingual program throughout elementary school. He speaks, reads, and writes English and Spanish with equal ease, although he says he also prefers English. Yovanny, who had two years of bilingual education, also seems to speak his native language with confidence, said his mother. Their sister, Ariana, who is just past her first birthday, knows only a few words in English, including her favorite: ``mine.''

But Alonso is another story. In the span of just a few months, Spanish has become the language Alonso only uses when speaking to his parents and other Spanish-speaking adult relatives.

``I think he speaks English better than Spanish now,'' said Carmen Martinez, in Spanish. ``I was trying to read him a book in Spanish the other day, to teach him a little, and he had no idea what it was. He told me, `I like English better.'''

For his mother, that is a flashing light telling her that Alonso could easily lose his grasp of Spanish, and along with it the advantages that come from knowing more than one language, the connection to his heritage, and perhaps the ability to communicate clearly with his parents.

Although Carmen is now learning English through the Otis Family School program, and her husband, a construction worker, already speaks basic English, the language remains troublesome for both. Without a common language, she fears, her children might drift away from the strict boundaries of their home, where Carmen and Genaro enforce early curfews, monitor phone calls, and are a familiar presence in all their sons' schools.

``It's so hard to raise children in this country. Every day, I worry about them, about what they are doing and who they are with,'' said Carmen, 40.

So, inside the Martinez home, only Spanish is allowed. Carmen Martinez doesn't want her children speaking in a language she does not fully understand. And she uses her own experience to teach the value of learning another language young.

``I tell them: `Look at me. It's hard for me to learn English because I started late,''' Martinez said. ``I would give anything for none of them to lose their Spanish. I want them to know both languages - equally.''

...as children play

Downstairs, in the school's basement cafeteria, Alonso Martinez and his classmates were playing make-believe with the plastic zoo set. The first-graders spoke to each other in English, then, without missing a beat, switched to Spanish whenever Elba Portillo, another after-school aide and the mother of Alonso's friend Cindy, came to their table.

``Ay. Aqui va,'' said Cindy, as she positioned a little girl figurine on a plastic building. ``I'm going to put her right here. Esta esperando a Mami. `I want my Mommy right now,' she says.''

Cindy floated seamlessly between the two languages, addressing her classmates in English and her mother in Spanish. It's a skill she and her Spanish-speaking peers have acquired instinctively.

``If someone talks to me in Spanish, I answer in Spanish,'' explained Cindy, whose tiny face is dominated by wide brown eyes.

Meanwhile, upstairs in a third floor classroom, Carmen Martinez and other parents were wrestling with new phrases in English.

``Since you began learning English, has anything changed in your family?''

The question, scribbled in green marker on an oversized yellow pad, yielded a litany of responses from the parents who assemble there for two hours every afternoon. And the answers, dashed off in purple strokes on the yellow pad, hinted of ways a home can change when two languages converge.

``I go places alone now,'' was the response from Gloribel Rivas.

``I can resolve problems better,'' said Iraci Nascimento.

``I can read with my kids more,'' noted Rosa Martinez.

Carmen Martinez answered last: ``I understand my children better.''

The parents, immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil, work hard to tackle simple sentences in English - a language their children, all students at the school, seem to be absorbing as effortlessly as they might catch a cold from a classmate.

But at what cost? That was the worry underlying the next phrase on the board: ``How can parents help children remember their language and culture?''

Then, a third phrase seemed to say it all: Language is Power.

``If I speak English, and Carmen doesn't speak English, who has more power?'' teacher Susan Klaw asked her class.

You do, the parents answered.

It was, in many ways, the same question flickering so often through Carmen Martinez's thoughts: If my children speak English, and I don't, who has more power?


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