Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.
Sensitivity is Key
Imagine you are back in school when you move overseas with your family. You are in an unfamiliar environment and the school where you are enrolled does not make you feel exactly welcome. How do you think this would affect your progress as a student? Would this situation help your desire to learn the language of your new country? This picture illustrates how political factors can affect learning. Political factors, applied to second language learning, are situations impacting a specific cultural group of students, positively or negatively, due to governmental or organizational policies and structures. The policies or regulations that impact English learners in U.S. schools may come from the federal, state or local levels. In this lesson, we explore the most relevant political factors that can have an influence in second language development.
While political factors pertain to society as a whole, you can have your own approach in the classroom. As a teacher, you can raise your sensitivity towards English learners to help them develop their skills in the language. Let's take a look at political factors that can affect your students' learning.
School Culture and Organization
Amalia is a student from Mexico who joins a school in the US. At Amalia's school, there are not many immigrant children. However, the few immigrant students who are at the school tend to get together for all activities. Teachers and staff do not encourage students to mix. In consequence, Amalia makes friends only with other immigrant students like her and feels awkward about the idea of interacting with native speakers of English. This example illustrates how a school culture and organization can have an influence on a child who is learning English as a second language. If the school does not promote relationships that celebrate the diversity of the student population, English learners can isolate themselves. Now, let's imagine you work at Amalia's school. As a teacher, you could break the cycle and assign activities in which language learners work with native speakers. This way, you would be promoting diverse interactions among students. Also, you would give your English learners the opportunity to practice the language with native speakers.
Ideally, if you ever notice that the school culture or organization is not contributing to students' language development, you could always work with the school administrators to raise awareness about the need for change.
Status of Primary Language
Amalia would like to be able to use Spanish sometimes in the school environment where she is. However, Spanish does not rank as an subject of importance in her school. Since Spanish is not so important, Amalia does not feel interested in learning English either. This shows us that the status of the mother tongue students speak as compared to the target language, which in this case is English, influences language development. Conversely, when schools validate the students' mother tongue, there is an immediate validation of their culture and, in turn, students feel compelled to learn the second language. As a teacher, you can always validate your students' mother tongue by giving the opportunity to present on aspects of their culture. Also, you can help students by letting them use knowledge of their first language as a tool for developing the second language. For example, Amalia's English language teacher encourages her to present on 'churros', a Mexican dessert. Also, when Amalia finds English words that are cognates in Spanish, the teacher encourages her to remember these words based on what Amalia knows.
Language Planning and Policies
Amalia is in a state where bilingual education is not encouraged because the state's goal is to lead all students to be fully proficient in English only. While you, as a teacher, have to plan your lessons to comply with specific policies regarding language, you can always work with administrators to expand school policies. For instance, Amalia's teacher recommends that the school considers hiring bilingual teachers to assist English learners. While administrators know that it is not mandatory that teachers or English learners are bilingual, they do see many advantages in hiring bilingual educators. In short, each state and school has its policies regarding language but, luckily, educators can work to recommend changes that would benefit students. The most immediate area of influence is the school policy. However, this does not mean educators should not work to also influence state or federal policy (e.g. write a policy memo).
Amalia often hears people say that the community where she lives is 'very white.' This makes Amalia feel out of place. However, Amalia's teacher works to have events in which community members participate while they learn about other cultures that are present in the area. For instance, during Halloween, there is a school open house with students' presentations. In this occasion, Amalia and some other Mexican friends present on the similarities and differences between 'Halloween' and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This raises cultural awareness among community members and also helps them open their minds to new cultures. You can always work to involve the entire community in learning about other cultures, which in turn makes students feel part of the community that speaks the language they are trying to learn.
Political factors, which includes situations impacting a specific group due to governmental or organizational policies and structures, can affect the learning of a second language. While political factors pertain to society as a whole, teachers can utilize an approach that turns those factors into something positive to contribute to second language learning. The factors that can impact English learners include school culture and organization, status of the primary language students speak, language planning and policies, and community involvement.
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