Friday, May 21, 2010

ESOL classes for Jamaican students

 A conversation on a TESOL listserv has caught my attention. A poster asked if students from Jamaica should be put in a English for Speakers of Other Languages class. Several replies posted told her to do so based on the fact that Jamaicans don't speak "standard English". I know of older children who have been put into ESOL classes even though they only speak English. I consider myself a native English speaker, even though it wasn't my first language, it's my primary language and now my only language. Perception can play too big a part in how "fluent" people are judged to be. Below is my response to the thread.


This conversation bothers me because I have heard of other non-American, but native English speaking people being placed in ESOL classes. I'm not calling anyone here racist or prejudiced, but there have been instances I know of where those really were motivating factors in putting non-white, native English speakers into inappropriate classes. As a community, I think we should be sensitized to this situation and guard against judging Englishes from non-First World countries as being inferior or non-standard.

I know of Africans, Asians, and Caribbean people who were all put in ESOL classes although they were taught in English through their entire academic life, and are completely fluent and functional. They're accents were judged by middle-class white Americans as "too foreign" but *I* could easily understand them. I've even heard of British-born people required to take the TOEFL. They were of Asian descent and regardless of their transcript and passport, were required to prove their English proficiency! Their Asian names and student visas trumped the obvious fact that they were native English speakers. Another example that illustrates that people are judged as fluent or not depending on their race is students who are white but speak French or Italian are often judged to be more fluent than they are because there's less stigma associated with their accents (they're even considered "romantic") even if they're test scores are equal to a Dominican student.

Also, judging some world Englishes to be "non-standard" makes me cringe because there IS no defined standard English. Secondly, many people who come from countries or societies where English is an official language along a creole or indigenous language can code switch quite easily. This includes children. Finally, a lot of children from the U.S, Canada, UK, Australia, or NZ do not have the academic writing (perhaps spoken) language skills necessary. (See this article.

As ESOL students still are in some schools considered "remedial" and often tracked into lower classes (which reflects more prejudices) I think it's even more important that students are correctly placed. (Even better if the attitudes toward non-ESOL students changes, but that's another topic.) For Jamaican (I'm assuming Black) students, this is an especially important issue. As a non-white student who was racially tracked, I know that the long-term effects are real.

1 comment:

  1. It often surprises me how unaware instructional professionals can be about the issues and best practices for ESL students. Many times this relates most to veteran teachers that have spent their careers working with less diverse populations. It can be frustrating to have colleagues that are unaware of the needs of ESL student.

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