Parents and Teachers Don’t See Eye-to-Eye on Merits of Language Mixing

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A diverse group of students play sports at J.J. Byrne Park on Fifth Avenue beside William Alexander Middle School 51. (Maane Khatchatourian / The Brooklyn Ink)

“Maria quiere coffee after class, pero I have to study.”

These ten simple words meaning “Maria wants coffee after class, but I have to study” sound harmless, but are highly contentious when uttered by a student as Park Slope teachers clash with students and their parents on the role of Spanglish in the classroom.

Unlike previous generations of Hispanic immigrants, parents are increasingly allowing the mixing of the two languages and — perhaps surprisingly — education researchers are celebrating the phenomenon.

Recent research findings conclude that the speech practice — known technically as “codeswitching” — doesn’t harm English language skills and may even boost intellectual development. This means that teachers, preoccupied from K-12 on promoting Standard English, may be the ones who are ill-informed.

Evelyn Lopez, Public School 10’s English Language Learner program instructor, said teachers are stricter especially with older students in terms of speaking “pure English” in class.

According to Lopez, past generations of Hispanic immigrants raised their children to either conform completely to American customs by only speaking English or maintain their cultural identity by only speaking Spanish.

“Sometimes parents don’t want them to speak their native tongue,” Lopez said. “They want their children to assimilate to the larger society. Because parents are coming and learning English themselves, they have become more open to bilingualism.”

Parents apparently made the better choice because studies have found that bilingualism is cognitively stimulating. In fact, multilinguals outperform monolinguals academically.

Illinois Wesleyan University linguist Susan Pollard found in a 2002 study that students who are allowed to codeswitch in class are better able to convey their knowledge of a given subject matter to their classmates and teachers. When codeswitching is banned, children stop themselves mid-sentence or claim not to know the response to a question that they may have otherwise answered if able to use multiple languages.

Park Slope teachers, however, are not ready to buy into the theories. For many of them, the research conclusions are not convincing.

Sonia Murrow, Brooklyn College School of Education assistant professor, said codeswitching can pose a threat to speakers if they don’t recognize their language-shifting habits.

“Kids need to know they’re doing it,” she said. “They need to know that Standard English exists. Kids need to be sophisticated enough to understand that there’s certain spaces where it’s welcome or not.”

However, Kimberly Savilla, a 16-year-old Fort Hamilton High School student, said she often cannot control her tendency to change languages within a single sentence.

“Some teachers discourage it,” Savilla said. “I feel sad when they do it. … Sometimes you don’t know how to say something so use another language to describe it.”

Savilla’s parents, who were born in Honduras, allow their children to codeswitch at home so they can practice speaking English while maintaining their Spanish language skills. Because language is one of the most significant cultural identity markers, Spanish-speaking communities in the neighborhood strive to preserve their native tongue.

Mark Patkowski, Brooklyn College Linguistics Program director and professor, said the general societal consensus that codeswitching stunts language development isn’t based on empirical evidence.

“I would assume that many teachers and administrators [would] not be particularly supportive of the habit, since codeswitching is generally regarded as somehow ‘deviant’ or ‘defective’ by the public at large,” Patkowski said in an e-mail. “Sociolinguists, on the other hand, would typically consider codeswitching as normal, natural and rule-governed.”

Nancy Lester, Park Slope’s Medgar Evers College education teacher training professor, said multilinguals automatically shift between languages to accommodate different social contexts and communicative partners.

“In most cases, using other dialects than the ‘received’ one is frowned upon in both oral and written contexts,” Lester said in an e-mail. “I think codeswitching is completely appropriate and we should be teaching children purpose and audience for language and how language changes as those change.”

John Gonzalez, a 12-year old William Alexander Middle School 51 student whose grandparents emigrated from Puerto Rico, said his linguistic repertoire allows him to tailor his language to the situation at hand.

“I use Spanish when joking around with friends at school, with inside jokes,” he said. “My mom says Spanish words sometimes when trying to get my attention.”

Gonzalez and his friends aren’t allowed to speak Spanish in class, but they do so during breaks in the school day.

Additionally, Patkowski said educators must find a balance between teaching Standard English and encouraging multilingual children to express themselves in different languages.

“One can be neither for, nor against codeswitching,” he said. “It simply exists as a natural occurrence in bilingual/multilingual settings. The goal of educators must be able to find ways to incorporate this fact into their pedagogical approaches, the ultimate aim being to prepare children to function successfully in society. Such success, in my opinion, necessarily entails learning Standard English, but this does not by any means require that the other language varieties … be ruthlessly suppressed.”

Kailin Castillo, a 15-year-old Secondary School for Law, Journalism and Research student whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic, also said teachers need to be more tolerant and understanding.

“Sometimes you’re just trying to look for a particular word and it comes out in Spanish,” Castillo said. “When I was exposed to English, I leaned in a different way. Teachers need to realize that students who weren’t born in an English-speaking home need to be taught differently.”

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One Response to “Parents and Teachers Don’t See Eye-to-Eye on Merits of Language Mixing”

  1. soren
    November 24, 2011 at 12:25 AM #

    These kids do have to take standardized tests. While I’d give a kid a break for “language mixing” and “code switching”, I think it would be a mistake to actually promote it as a good.

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