How learning English transforms immigrant kids

June 4, 2012

By Medill students Cindy Huang and Ashley Gates

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(Photo courtesy of Cindy Huang)

When I landed in Hawaii, I didn’t speak a word of English. I went from being a rowdy tomboy to being an introverted loner.

I can’t remember my first day of school in Honolulu. The only thing I recall is the sensation of being in a bubble, unable to understand what was going on around me.

I would try to blend into the background. I pretended I understood what was going on and hoped no one could call me out. ESL class was the only time I could be myself.  No one judged my Chinese accent, my broken English and limited understanding of American culture. I could ask “Why does the word ‘the’ exist? How does that make any sense? Why is the dime smaller than the nickel?"

During recess, people whispered and pointed at me. I was painfully aware of how mute and different I was.  And I felt too scared to make new friends. I thought the reason that I wasn’t popular or pretty was because I wasn’t white and didn’t speak English.

While I was working on this story, I came across a girl who reminded me of myself. Jennifer Yee is an 11-year-old Chinese girl. We met at an after-school program at the Southeast Asia Center in Chicago.  

"Well, English is my third language," Yee explained. "When I first started learning English it was really difficult. I think the only two words I know was hello and goodbye."

When I asked her if it was hard making friends, she said, "Sometimes when I see someone and they look like Asian right, I just asked them in my language if they speak Chinese. Wait, that’s how I know a little bit of English, so I could say, ‘do you speak Mandarin’."

Even though she had found support from other Mandarin-speaking kids, fitting in at school was still hard.

"Some people are mean to me even though I speak English. Sometimes they don’t understand me," she said.  "Like they don’t understand how way I feel."

I sat at Jennifer’s table in class. And I realized that she’s the only one sitting alone. She stays focused on her math worksheet as the other kids are chatting and avoiding doing work. And she finished far before everyone else.

"Sometimes I don’t feel like playing because I don’t even know them. Sometime during recess time, indoor right, I just like to sit there and read," she said.

Executive director of Literacy Works in Chicago, Christine Kenny, says even adult immigrants feel the same sense of isolation when they can’t master the language. What I went through and Jennifer is going through is common.

"I feel like it's not so much shame that someone feels when they come to this country. It's more humbling that you realize that you see yourself as this very capable, knowledgeable, experienced person and yet there you are. You're not able to express yourself the way you want to," Kenny said.

She says one of the hardest parts of teaching is getting her students to express themselves.   

"I think that people who would normally come in and just be more comfortable in their skin, it just takes a few extra moments to realize that this is a welcoming environment," she said. "I think that if you're in your own native country speaking your own language you don't come in with that trepidation."

And the inability to express oneself can cost someone more than their self-esteem.  

"One day this young woman said, she asked me in Spanish, you know, how to say 'don't touch me like that,'" Kenny said. "I told her in English how do you say that and then I asked her why. She said because my boss touches me inappropriately and I don't know how to quickly respond and I can step away but I don't have the language."

Language is power.  It’s the power to stand up for yourself, to make friends and to be part of your community. As Jennifer’s English gets stronger, her confidence does as well.   

"After I learn more English, I make more friends and I don’t feel lonely anymore," she said. "I feel the way I did when I was in China and had a lot of friends."

The thing is, when you’re a kid and you’re thrown into a new country, language is a burden. And when you overcome it, it becomes a tool. A tool to meet new people, learn new things and even become a journalist.