When we sit down in our classrooms at Albion College, it is fair to say that if you are a native English speaker with a neurotypical brain, then you probably have no issues listening to and understanding the English speaking professor’s lectures held in class. But what about those students whose first language is not English?
Those with a non-English native tongue are oftentimes those who have immigrated to the U.S. and are pressured to assimilate to a system where English is the primary language. In the classroom, non-native English students cannot autopilot their brains to listen and comprehend like native English speakers do. Non-native English students have to sit there and translate every word in their head, which is a process that can vary in pace based on their level of proficiency: beginner, intermediate or advanced.
I had the chance to talk to a friend on campus who is a native Spanish speaker from Mexico. She told me about her experience listening to English speaking professors and how sometimes the professor is simply going too fast for her to keep up and gather all the information being thrown at her.
She told me that sometimes she has trouble coming up with words. There are words in her English vocabulary that will sometimes overlap with her Spanish vocabulary, but the words in translation have a different meaning.
I’ll be honest, when my friend expressed her experiences with me, I, along with my other friend in the conversation, was taken back. I had forgotten that, although someone can become fluent in a language, that it will never be in relationship with their brain like their native language. Acknowledging and becoming aware of language barriers still remains important in a higher education environment.
It seems as though we have been far removed from elementary school classrooms, where some of us may remember certain students being pulled out of class to attend English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.
My friend telling me that she is always in translation mode made me think back to those students who were being taken to ESOL when I was in the second grade of elementary school. I wondered how they were doing in the classes we took together. I wondered if the language barrier made it difficult for them to learn. I wondered if there was anything I could do as a small second grader that could make their time in class a little easier, but I honestly never knew who to speak to about the possible issue at hand.
The same questions about how non-native English students’ experiences in the classroom ring true for me today at Albion.
It seems that it can be easily forgotten that no matter what year in school we are in, we are all at different levels in our academic journey, and that includes our journey in collectively learning the language of English in this country. We all should remind ourselves of these seemingly indivisible learning barriers like that of language barriers, and humbly be reminded of our privileges and how we can use them to empower others.