Whether it was a lawyer in a New York City restaurant or a suburban mom on a Target run, people have called the police on others for no other reason than speaking a foreign language. However, Zaline Roy-Campbell, an associate professor in the School of Education at Syracuse University, believes that speaking a language other than English isn’t something to fear. In fact, it should be celebrated.
“Unfortunately, in this country, because we're so monocentric and so monolingual, we tend to see having something else as a deficient or a negative,” said Roy-Campbell. “I do not think there are any negative effects of having two languages. It can only be positive.”
Roy-Campbell founded SU’s Teaching English Language Learners master’s program, which aims to help students understand the challenges and benefits English language learners can face. Children who are qualified as English language learners, for instance, often have a lower chance of scoring well on tests and graduating from schools.
Mariesa Dranschak has seen kids beat the odds. An instructional coach at Seymour Dual Language Academy, Dranschak has worked to build up the academy and break down barriers for English language learners.
Since 1999, the dual language program at Seymour has facilitated learning in both English and Spanish from kindergarten to fifth grade. Around ten years ago, the first cohort of children in the program was set to graduate high school and Dranschak wanted to see how much the program really impacted her students’ learning.
“When we're starting them out in kindergarten, sometimes we don't see the fruits of our labor,” she said. “Sometimes it's a real struggle. ‘Why are we doing this? Does it even matter? Is it even going to impact anything?’”
To answer these tough questions, Dranschak dove deep into their academic progress from fifth grade to their senior year of high school. She examined her students’ eighth-grade annual English Language Arts (ELA) test scores, which are administered by New York State. Of the students from the Seymour Dual Language program, 53% scored at the proficiency level.
Dranschak said that compared with students from two other middle schools in the Syracuse area, Seymour students scored around 40% better than the others and all of them retained at least a basic level of proficiency.
Moving through high school, students from the program continuously scored better than their peers in core subjects and experienced a lower dropout rate. More than 90% of the class graduated from high school, compared to the 39% dropout rate of the Syracuse City School District at the time, according to Dranschak.
“Students aren't just learning a second language,” she said. “They're forming new connections in their brain between the left side and right side.”
Though bilingualism has a positive effect on skills such as memory and attentional flexibility, gaining proficiency in two languages is not a simple task.
There are many different techniques that help English language learners develop their vocabulary and comprehension skills. SU sophomore Christian Andino Borrero tutors kindergarten students in the dual language program at Delaware Primary School in Syracuse.
Growing up, Andino Borrero became fluent in both Spanish and English through a dual language program in Puerto Rico. He’s learned at Delaware Primary that using a lot of visuals and working on skills like enunciation improves kids’ proficiency.
“You really want them to understand what you’re teaching them,” he said. “It is just a process that you go little by little, but they really do absorb a lot.”
Another large part of the program’s success is its inclusive culture. Within Syracuse alone, there is a wide variety of non-English speaking households.
According to Roy-Campbell, while Spanish is the dominant non-English language, Somali, Burmese and Karen (another language native to Burma) are also prominent in the Syracuse area. He stresses that no one culture is better than the other and students do not have to substitute American culture for their own. Instead, culture can coexist to build a stronger community.
Dranschak finds that the community Seymour has built around the dual language program benefits the parents as well as the students. Since the development of the program, the school has hired more Spanish-speaking staff members and can accommodate the needs of both parents and students.
“When we did become a dual language school, families felt more comfortable coming in because they knew that there were people here who spoke their language,” she said. “So, building that community of having us be able to support the families, they in turn are able to support their children and our school a little bit more also.”
This sense of community gives non-native English speakers a safe space to express themselves in this era of cop-calling bystanders. However, students and teachers, such as Roy-Campbell, hope that the stigma around multilingual citizens disappears with the education of both native English speakers and English language learners in dual language programs. Roy-Campbell stresses that any progress begins with conversations in the community.
“Smartness or intelligence has nothing to do with the language you speak,” she stated. “It's very important that all students understand that they can function together, and they can respect each other.”
Design Director Amy Nakamura is a junior studying magazine journalism and international relations at Syracuse University.