Lucy Wagner

Speak the Same Language

Three City High students reveal the difficulties they face as children of immigrants.

March 17, 2016

For many parents, calling their child’s school to resolve a problem or talk with administration is easy. For junior Chance Musema’s parents, it can be a large challenge.

Musema’s parents do not speak English. Instead, they speak a mix of Swahili, Lingala, and French – the languages spoken in their native Congo. The obstacles surrounding language and dialect sometimes lead Musema’s parents to feel powerless, discouraged, and alienated.

“First of all, communication is really hard [for my mom],” Musema said. “She doesn’t understand the English. I don’t know what it’s like when she’s trying to pay phone bills and stuff. The way she pronounces stuff, it’s really hard to understand. You can see how angry she gets, when she’s trying to pronounce stuff and doesn’t get it. She knows what she’s saying, but it’s not coming out right.”

For many ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) or non-English speaking parents, the inability to bridge the language barrier can serve as a barricade against getting a good education. Education is seen by many as their child’s path to success. It can be difficult for non-English speaking parents to become involved in their child’s life outside of the home due to differences in culture and language.

“It is hard when there are conferences at school and [my mom] cannot come because she feels uncomfortable having someone translate for her,” Josselyn Hernandez ‘16, the daughter of Spanish-speaking parents, said. “When my siblings have to go to the dentist or hospital, it’s very hard for [my parents]. I have to call for them.”

Musema agrees that her mother, Subi, is not actively involved with her schooling. Due to the language barrier, Subi rarely interacts with Musema’s teachers.

“My mom wants me to work hard,” Musema said. “But she can’t talk to the teachers. So my mom, being a single mom, she just focuses on trying to make life better for us, not our grades.”

My mom, being a single mom, she just focuses on trying to make life better for us, not our grades.

— Chance Musema

Furthermore, many ESOL or non-English speaking parents find it intimidating to attend or socialize at school events. According to Teaching for Change, a non-profit organization dedicated to building social justice throughout education, “Some parents equate lack of recognition for their language as a lack of respect for their culture. Although unintended by providers, parents may feel rejected and isolate themselves further. They may decline to participate in school functions or to take leadership roles.”

“If we have a football game [my mom] won’t even come,” Musema said. “She might feel a little wrong because in Africa we don’t do that stuff, like watching your kid play basketball, we don’t do that. She stays in the house most of the time.”

Some students feel that their parent’s inability or difficulty to speak English is an embarrassment.

“When we go out to eat, [my parents] don’t know what to say,” Musema said. “They might order the wrong food. They just see whatever looks good in the picture. As a kid, as a teenager, I might feel a bit embarrassed. Like, ‘Come on Mom.’”

Many non-English speakers will take classes in order to learn English. However, schooling is a large time commitment, especially for parents that work around-the-clock.

“[My parents] work a lot and do not have time to go to school and learn English,” Brigitte Rukakiza ‘18 said, whose parents speak Kirundi, Swahili, and French.

City High’s new club, Welcome, has been pushing to teach ESOL and non-English speaking parents English as well as communication skills and how to become better involved in their students’ lives. Bihotza James-Lejarcegui ‘18, whose parents speak English, Spanish, French, and Basque, founded the club in early 2016. 

Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of immigrating and mixing cultures with those who don’t speak English. People just don’t reach out to them

— James-Lejarcegui

“ESOL parents have difficulty communicating with teachers on basic educational needs such as understanding the grading systems and Powerschool,” James-Lejarcegui said. “My mom is an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher at City High and she has opened my eyes on this situation. I’ve realized that many students at City High have parents who cannot come to conferences because they don’t speak English. I think it’s really important to give these parents a chance to be involved in their children’s lives and become more confident.”

With a handful of parents coming regularly every week to the club, Welcome has begun to take off. Along with teaching fluency in conversation, the club looks to coach parents in using Powerschool and understanding the grading system used at City High.

“Parents may be confused on grades as well,” James-Lejarcegui said. “Some don’t know what an ‘F’ is; they don’t realize their child is falling behind on grades. They don’t know how to check Powerschool. No one teaches them the system. They are put here with the idea of ‘figure it out.’”

James-Lejarcegui believes the club is also a great way for non-English speaking parents to integrate themselves into the American culture. Welcome works so that every ESOL or non-English speaking parent is partnered up with a fluent English speaker who privately tutors them on necessary skills and everyday communication.

“Unfortunately, you don’t see a lot of immigrating and mixing cultures with those who don’t speak English,” James-Lejarcegui said. “People just don’t reach out to them.”

Many multilingual students believe their diverse backgrounds and dialects isolate them from fitting in with American culture.

“When [my family and I] are speaking all of our languages, it can sound like we are yelling at each other,” Rukakiza said. “We speak in a tone that is not comfortable for those we don’t speak with.”

Hernandez says that her family has been discriminated against due to their language.

“When I first got here, I was afraid to speak in English,” Hernandez said. “There are people that laugh at you when you miss a word. I think they are racist. Once I tell people I speak little English they get away from me. Some Americans try to be nice and speak slow, but some are mean and racist when they see [us] as a lower-class.”

People would make fun of how I speak. They would repeat how I’m saying it. It does hurt, but I don’t want to show them that

— Chance Musema

There has been a history of ESOL students being singled out due to mispronunciation of a word or their distinctive dialects. Musema explains how she was discriminated against and judged due to her accent.

“I used to get bullied,” Musema said. “People would make fun of how I speak. They would repeat how I’m saying it. It does hurt, but I don’t want to show them that.”

Rukakiza agrees that her family is treated differently and stereotyped as a result of their dialects and heritage.

“I would agree that some people are racist,” Rukakiza said. “They look at you and they think ‘oh she’s probably poor. Because she doesn’t speak English we can take advantage of her.’”

While many immigrant parents want their family to speak English in order to fit in with the American culture, they also want their children to remember their unique heritages.

“[My parents] don’t want me to forget my culture,” said Rukakiza. “They push me to speak in different languages.”

One thing is for certain: communication is a two-way street.

“If you have a friend that does not speak the English language, you should try and help them,” Hernandez said. “Be kind. It’s hard. You may feel what it’s like to be in a new country and speak a different language if you travel. Be nice to them.”


Reporting contributed by Maya Durham.

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