The Latino Gap: Not Quite Trilingual
February 03, 2012

The Latino Gap: Not Quite Trilingual

Andrea came into the public school system sort of speaking three languages: Spanish, English and Kanjobal. After five years of English immersion classes, she's still struggling to communicate - in any language.



Before reporting for the Fronteras Desk, Devin Browne worked in several Los Angeles public schools, where she first met the main character in this story. This documentary and story includes observations from the time she spent working in Los Angeles public schools and numerous interviews with students and teachers.



LOS ANGELES - Like so many students that I’d taught in Los Angeles, Andrea could speak three languages. “I speak Spanish, English, and Kanjobal,” she told me.

At the time she said this in early 2008, we both thought it was true. And in some ways, it was true. She spoke Spanish with her brother and sisters at home. She spoke Spanish and Kanjobal - which is a Mayan language - with her parents, both of whom are from Guatemala. And she spoke English with me, the fifth first-grade teacher she had that year.

Then one day, it became clear that this was only sort of true - that in fact, Andrea could only sort of speak Spanish and only sort of speak English and really knew just a couple of words in Kanjobal. That day was the day we held parent-teacher conferences, which in Los Angeles public schools, are really student-parent-teacher conferences, student-led and student-directed with the idea being this helps students take more ownership over their school work.

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Before reporting for the Fronteras Desk, Devin Browne worked in several Los Angeles public schools, where she first met the main character in this story. This documentary and story includes observations from the time she spent working in Los Angeles public schools and numerous interviews with students and teachers.



LOS ANGELES - Like so many students that I’d taught in Los Angeles, Andrea could speak three languages. “I speak Spanish, English, and Kanjobal,” she told me.

At the time she said this in early 2008, we both thought it was true. And in some ways, it was true. She spoke Spanish with her brother and sisters at home. She spoke Spanish and Kanjobal - which is a Mayan language - with her parents, both of whom are from Guatemala. And she spoke English with me, the fifth first-grade teacher she had that year.

Then one day, it became clear that this was only sort of true - that in fact, Andrea could only sort of speak Spanish and only sort of speak English and really knew just a couple of words in Kanjobal. That day was the day we held parent-teacher conferences, which in Los Angeles public schools, are really student-parent-teacher conferences, student-led and student-directed with the idea being this helps students take more ownership over their school work.

So we prepared the classroom. The kids rehearsed what to say. And then, when their parents came into the room, the kids could hardly say anything to them. They mostly went to all the designated points on the classroom tour and tried a few times to explain where they were or what they did there before getting very quiet and just giving up. Next door, another first-grade teacher, Nikki Reich, saw more or less the same thing.

“They have to tell their parent[s] about their work,” Reich said. “And so they’re trying to describe it to them in like a Spanglish. It would be, for example: ‘Mama, mira! Look at, mira this paper.’” She goes on: “And the mom doesn’t speak any English. And the son, he doesn’t know Spanish very well. So it makes me wonder: How are they talking at home?”

This was a question teachers said came up a lot during conferences, especially when parents and kids had such a hard time talking to each other that the interpreter - who’d actually been hired for the teacher - spent most of her time walking around the classroom, translating between kids and their parents.

For Andrea’s part, she tried to make a go of it on her own, without the interpreter. She sat down with her mom at the math center, stared at her for a minute, totally silent, until something came over her and she rather impatiently asked “¿Habla Ingles?” to which they both burst out laughing.

It had always been clear that Andrea was missing some English, because like almost all Esperanza Elementary first graders, she was still learning English. But the conferences made clear that she and many of her classmates were also missing Spanish, and that for so many reasons, they were not learning it at home.

When I met Andrea, she was 6 years old, and so small that she won our classroom limbo contest without having to even arch her back or bend her knees. And already, in the absence of a foundation in even one language, she was basically alone. She couldn’t really talk to anyone, because she didn’t really have the words.

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At this point, when kids get trapped in their own heads, without language to help them out, teachers typically see one of two things happen. The first involves hitting. Esperanza teacher Lillian Thompson puts it like this: “What I see at the end of first grade, they can’t talk to their parents. The parents can’t control them behavior-wise. The kids begin to punch their parents. I see violence.”

Or, alternatively, teachers say they see kids just quietly fade out. Researchers who study dropout rates say that leaving school is the final act of disengagement - final meaning that disengagement is a process that can start when kids are very young.

“Those are the kids you really worry about,” a former Esperanza teacher, John Bohm, said. “Because the ones who are acting up, at least -- I know that something is going on with that kid and I can kind of like figure out a way.” He goes on: “Whereas the kid who is very silent, they’re really falling through the cracks. And they can’t access the academic language in their native tongue, in Spanish or in English.”

How this is possible - that kids can grow up in the United States, lacking proficiency in any one language - has roots in all three worlds that typically make up a little kid’s universe: their home, their neighborhood and their school.

I Don't Want No Spiders

“Hi! My name is Andrea,” Andrea said into my cell phone, loud enough for the phone’s recorder. “I have four sisters: Me, Virginia, Sonia, and Marcia. I have a mom called Guadalupe, and a dad called Pascual. I have a brother named Yobany.”

Actually, at the time, Andrea had three sisters and one brother, and, all but the eldest slept in the front room of their apartment together with their parents. Andrea and her mom shared a bed until last year - when Guadalupe had her sixth baby, Eva, and needed to sleep with her. Andrea’s mom adores Andrea. In fact, she adores Andrea so much that Andrea’s siblings, Sonia and Yobany, think that Andrea is her mom’s favorite.

“She buys her everything, she takes her everywhere she goes,” Sonia said. “It’s always Andrea.”

“Only like once a year, she takes Marcia,” Yobany added. “That is something rare.

“And all the other times?” I asked.

“Andrea.”

This is all true, but the other reason Andrea’s mom takes Andrea with her, mainly to the factory on Saturdays, is that she hardly gets to see Andrea. This, more than anything else, is why Andrea doesn’t have a strong sense of Spanish: Her parents work all the time. Even with these weekend outings to the factory or to church, Andrea’s parents are simply not around enough to really talk to her. And - this would be the second reason her Spanish isn’t that great - when Andrea’s parents are home, they speak to her sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in Kanjobal.

Both Pascual and Guadalupe were born in the Guatemalan state of Barillas to parents who were farmers and street vendors. It is totally normal to them that Andrea speak a different language at school. When they were kids in Guatemala, they spoke Kanjobal at home and Spanish at school and none of their parents had a thing to do with their formal schooling. Pascual completed sixth grade, Guadalupe stopped after second grade. She was married at 14, pregnant at 16, and in the end bore six children, of which Andrea is second to last. Every morning, Guadalupe is up at 6 a.m., out the door at 6:30, and in front of her sewing machine by 7. She works until 5 p.m., makes 15 cents per blouse, and often has so many garments to sew that she brings her work home at night for the kids to help with while she cooks dinner.

Pascual also works at a factory during the day. For a while, at night, he took English classes, but then stopped to take a second job as a security guard. Andrea hardly sees her dad and when she does, he’s sleeping. If he’s home and awake and, Andrea says, not very grumpy, he sometimes helps - usually with math.

“I understand math,” Pascual said in Spanish. “What I can’t understand is English.”

But remember, Andrea is in an English-only class. All of her homework - even a lot of the math, like the word problems and shapes - is in English. Which leaves only Andrea’s siblings to help her if she gets lost. This is not a very well suited role for her oldest sister, who dropped out of high school at 16, pregnant. And it’s a lot to ask of her other sister Sonia, who is still in school and who mainly does her homework, though can’t always see the point.

“Because I don’t like school,” Sonia said. “Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes I don’t get the classes, so I might as well ditch.”

So Andrea does most of her schoolwork on her own. It’s often haunting to read. I remember that for one assignment, during our unit on maps, I asked the kids to make a map of their apartment and label each room. Most of the kids brought in sketches of studios and one-bedrooms with the words “la cocina” next to the kitchen and “la sala” next to a couch. But Andrea’s drawing was absent of anything - no rooms, no furniture - except a picture of a little girl and the words “1 TICK.” I tried to ask her, in private, is there anything at home that we might want to talk about - an insect infestation, for example. She started to talk to me about this, but stopped, for, apparently, she didn’t have the words.

Only much later, during a visit to her house, did the insects come up again.

“Do you like where you live?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, flatly. “It’s cause, I don’t want no spiders, no cock-a-roach and no rats.”

I asked her if she had any ticks. She didn’t know what those were.

“Do you have bedbugs?

“No,” she said.

“No chinches?” I pressed.

“No.” Then she said, “Yes! Sometimes I do.”

She definitely did. She knew just where the bedbugs, or chinches, lived and just how they died. She showed me, in fact, which wasn’t hard, because they were everywhere. In situations like this, it becomes clear that the issue of language that can link home and school isn’t just a luxury of cultural preservation or even academic strategy, but of safety.

Researchers say that after the English-only initiative passed in California, the state didn’t just lose most of its bilingual classes; they also lost about half of their bilingual teachers. And these researchers note that bilingual teachers are really useful in situations like this one. Not only are they better able to assess their students academically and engage the parents of English learners more, they’re also able to ask kids like Andrea things in Spanish that she might not know how to tell them in English - things even more important than ticks or bedbugs. Insects are visual and tangible, but there could be any number of circumstances, variations of neglect or abuse that are hard to explain in any language, but especially in a second or third language. So not only was Andrea missing any support at home for what happens at school, she also wasn’t able to get any support at school for what happens at home.

Mucho Bargain

In between these two worlds of home and school is Andrea’s neighborhood - the second place that might help Andrea learn language. But as it turns out, this neighborhood offers very little in terms of linguistic clarity.

MacArthur Park, in Los Angeles, is the densest neighborhood in the United States outside of Manhattan. It’s a world filled with noise, but not necessarily language. Another student at Esperanza, Oscar, who lives around the corner, hears what Andrea hears.

“I hear the DASH (bus) and cars that are going,” he said. “When someone is putting music in the streets and I can hear it. Or when someone is fighting, you could hear it. Like screaming.”

All over the neighborhood are signs and store names like “Mucho Bargain” and “Regalos Para Baby Shower”. The written language of MacArthur Park is neither Spanish, nor English, but like Andrea, somewhere in between. Also, it’s often misspelled or grammatically incorrect - for example the sign that says “Foot Doctor for Childrens” and the banner advertising a flu shot, flu spelled f-l-u-e.

This is the world Andrea walks in everyday between home and school. It’s the only place she knows. There is her house, her school and her mom’s clothing factory, where she goes on Saturdays. Sometimes there is also Elysian Park, the Laundromat, and her family’s church. She’s never been enrolled in an art class or a sport. She’s never been to the movies. She’s never left L.A.

Paul Hauls Prawns

And it’s this place Andrea comes to school from, the third world that informs her sense of language. The chasm between the worlds is huge, and about so much more than just language. For example, says Nikki Reich, some of the parents try and enroll their children at school with only one name. The school needs two. “And the father who was enrolling the kids, he heard another parent talking about their child, and he said: ‘What’s that child’s name? OK, put that name down.’ ” She goes on: “So this child in my class just got two first names. So every member of their family that goes to this school has a different last name.”

A lot of teachers mention anecdotes like this one. Maybe they sent home a permission slip only to have an X come back in place of a signature. Maybe they asked a child on the first day of kindergarten what their name was and the child was sure it was “mi hijo,” which is a term of endearment in Spanish that means “my child.”

And out of this great gap, Andrea comes into the classroom. There are a few reasons why Andrea isn’t quite learning English here, just like she isn’t quite learning Spanish or Kanjobal at home or in her neighborhood.

The first is that even though Andrea’s class is called an English Immersion class, it’s really not. Almost all of her classmates are also learning English and the teacher is often the only native English speaker in the room. I mention this because the research says that English learners who have one friend - just one friend - who is a native English speaker are more likely to attain fluency. But almost no one at Andrea’s school has this resource. Mostly, the teacher is the only person in the lives of these kids who speaks English to them.

So with this ratio, it’s not really English that the kids are immersed in, but their own elementary school versions of English-like idioms. They like to start sentences “It’s cuz like.” They like to use “barely” when they mean “already” or “just” - as in: “He barely turned in his homework, Miss.”

The second reason English is so hard for Andrea to learn is because the English she’s surrounded by in school - if not the broken English of her classmates - is mainly the language of the district’s reading program. So some of the first English Andrea hears sounds like this: “Goo. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ohh. What could be making that sound?” The tape continues: “Could it be a new flute playing a tune? No! It’s goo.”

And when Andrea isn’t hearing English like this, she’s reading it. The kids read printed handouts called “decodables” that are based not on context, but on phonetic repetition. As an example, in honor of the “au” sound, one decodable has sentences like: “Paul hauls prawns at dawn in his yawl” and “Once and again, Paul’s net caught something and became taught.”

Andrea has never seen a yawl before. She has no idea what prawns are, so she mainly just dazes off and thinks of other things, things with which Paul and his prawns cannot compete, things like: “Secret stuff.”

“What kind of secret stuff?” I asked her.

“Like, a girl named Esperanza likes a boy named Lisandro,” she said. “And then I’m thinking that she might marry him and he might marry her. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

Throughout Andrea’s elementary school career, she consistently scored above average in math and far below average in reading and writing - anything to do with language. Even as she learned how to crack the alphabetic code and read, she could never really reproduce the language in a way that was her own. She could never really reproduce it in a way that was meaningful. For example, I kept a mailbox on my desk for the kids who wanted to write me letters, and from the more advanced writers in the class, I got notes with simple sentences like “You’re a nice teacher” or “You’re a pretty teacher” or, my favorite, a total surprise from a kid named Fernando who wrote: “Dear Miss Browne, it’s not my fault because Carlos told me to throw it.”

Andrea also wrote me letters, but hers had neither simple sentences nor pleas of absolution. Instead, they were long lists of nouns or numbers, one through 100. I remember visiting her house once and asking her, on the porch, what words she might like to know in Kanjobal. I was expecting words that were relevant to her life at home like “house” or “porch.” Instead, just as if we were in a phonics class, she said, “I want to know how to say ice, rice, ice. Ice rice rhyme.”

It was so many little things like this. Individually, they might have meant very little, but together they added up to a kind of English that was in many ways like the English she read in her decodables: nonsensical, out of context, not relevant.

A lot of the teachers at Andrea’s school sensed this disconnect, but could do little about it. The district mandated exactly how the teachers spent their time. And because L.A. schools were under such immense pressure to improve their test scores every single year, teachers spent almost all of their time teaching what the kids would be tested on: reading, writing and math. This brings us to the third reason Andrea didn’t really learn English at school: Instead of studying yawls in a science lesson about fishing and boats, she learned about yawls in a phonics lesson with words yawl shared vowels with.

The district was serious about this approach, so serious in fact that they often sent in principals and vice principals, literacy coaches and district VPs into classrooms to make sure at 9 in the morning teachers really were teaching about Paul and prawns.

“And it made it very nerve wracking to work there,” Lillian Thompson said. “It made you want to stay in your classroom so that: ‘Oh my God! Two minutes to transition!’ You know: You felt the pressure. The result for me? Two things happened. First, all my hair turned gray.” She asked me if I knew her hair was a wig. I did not. “Ok,” she said. “And bald spots. All my hair came out. When I was ready to quit and near a nervous breakdown...”

Thompson went on to say that the observations only got more intense, the pressure so great, that some teachers started to juke their stats, writing that kids could read many more words per minute than was actually true.

“Where it said ‘120’ ‘80’ the kids were reading between 30 and 40 words,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, who told you to skip words?’ ‘Oh, our other teacher said it! If you don't recognize the words, just skip it, it gets the fluency score up!’”

Everyone feels the pressure, even the kids. Over the years, I’d visit Andrea and my old class at school and ask them how a particular student was doing if he happened to not be there that day. And instead of telling me “Carlos is good” or “Carlos is not so good” they told me his fluency score, the exact amount of words he could read per minute. It was that public. It was that on their minds. Some students are motivated by this, but some are not.

When Andrea told me that third grade was boring, her reasoning was this: “Because Mr. Ramirez wants us to read high and I can’t.”

I asked her if third grade would be exciting if she could read all the words. She said: “Yes.”

This gets us to the final reason Andrea struggles with language so much: she honestly believes at this point that she can’t speak any of them well.

“I talk weird.”

“Says who?” I asked.

“My brothers and sister. They say that I say random things, things that they don’t know,” Andrea said. “Cause the things that I make up supposedly, I don’t know what they’re trying to mean.”

Andrea’s sister might know Andrea’s language situation better than anyone. She’s usually the one Andrea goes to for help when she wants to tell her mom something, for example, but doesn’t know how.

“Like...words in English, things that are hard for me to tell me mom,” she said. “School, other things that doctors tell me. Sometimes they tell me to eat more vegetables instead of junk food.”

To be fair, Andrea does know some Spanish. But it’s the Spanish of cooking and clothing factories - vocabulary that she never found English equivalents for because no one cooks or sews with her at school. Similarly, the kind of English she was learning, academic English - the names of the planets, for example, or words from the decodable “Paul Hauls Prawns” - had no way into a conversation in Spanish at home. So without either world offering much connection to the other, Andrea is stuck somewhere in between.

The Hero of Third Grade

“OK classroom, today we’re going to learn about math. And then we’re going to learn about division. OK, Melanie tell me about one division.”

Here is school as Andrea sees it. She’s in charge, it’s her classroom, which is really her living room, and she’s making it all up as she goes along. Andrea is nine in this scene. This would have been one of her last days of third grade, but she was sent home early because the school nurse found head lice in her hair. This is the third time this has happened in two months. So in lieu of being in actual school, she set it up at home, something her brother says she does pretty regularly.

“She gets weird paper there and gets some markers and whatever she can find on the floor as students,” Yobany said. “And she starts talking to them, screams at them, gives them detention.”

“OK Marlon!” Andrea shouts. “I’m going to call your parents if you talk again! And you’re sending a letter home today.”

She goes from division to fractions to recess, telling me explicitly that she does not and will not teach reading. Indeed, even though she really can now read, she rarely does. Later this afternoon, she discovers a stopwatch on my phone and immediately digs to the bottom of a dresser to find a book -- by name, "The Hero of Third Grade" -- that looked like it had never been opened before. She and her sister then did the only thing they know how to do with books: They read it really fast, timing, and quizzing each other for a fluency score.

In this way, she is a perfect product of her public schools. She’s more interested in tests than books. She can read, but she’s far from knowing what any of the words mean.

“I want to learn more Spanish because my mom, she usually knows more Spanish than her language,” Andrea said recently. “I want to learn more Guatemalan too.”

The odds of this are slim. Andrea is now 10, in fifth grade, just a few months away from finishing elementary school. Andrea’s mom has only gotten busier over the years: she had her sixth baby, and then left her husband and now works in the factory all day and then comes home and cooks tortillas in the evening to sell to street vendors in the neighborhood.

They’ve also moved to a new building. What Andrea says she misses most is the front porch and driveway of her old apartment. She used to play there with her sister Marcia every day: cashier, princess, and one especially dramatic game called “manager,” based on their actual apartment manager who Andrea describes as “strong” and “like a bully.”

The way the game goes is that Andrea and a few other girls from the building act very drunk and get kicked out of their apartment. Then, the manager, played by Marcia, gets the money anyway. The attention to detail was always impressive and made clear that Andrea is absorbing quite well what’s going on in the world around her. In truth, like most of the kids in this neighborhood, she’s an almost expert witness on slumlords, overcrowded schools, and so many other problems of our city and society. Obviously, she has a lot to say, but if she doesn’t have the words, how will she ever tell us?

Note: Andrea’s story was produced by Devin Browne and Nick Blumberg, with help from Chad Matheny, Louise Baker Lee, Alisa Barba, Steven Mikulan, and seed money from the website Spot.us. Very special thanks to the staff at Esperanza Elementary School, Andrea’s family, and Andrea, who all told sat through something like 24 hours worth of interviews.

Most of what you heard in that documentary, Devin recorded while she lived in Los Angeles. These were largely her observations from four years of working in LA public schools, and talking to hundreds of students and teachers about their experiences in these schools. Andrea’s case is indeed exceptional, but many of the themes in the story -- linguistic isolation, kids and parents who can’t communicate, prioritizing short term gains in test scores over long term educational benefits -- these issues are prevalent, and they’re supported by the research we link to above -- also, see "The Latino Education Crisis," which helped provide a lot of context for this story.