Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Fiercest Students

I used to blog quite proudly about my students.

Mahvash (top) and Khodadad
Two graduates in LA's downtown garment district

Lately, though, I've been resenting the fact that they can't or won't learn English. My Advanced ESL students have been here 5, 10, 15 years and still can't write a sentence—or two, and definitely not a paragraph—about their lives. 

Perhaps the problem isn't their want of trying, but the geography of Los Angeles. When I worked for Cultural Affairs we spoke of this as "bridging the diversity gap" between communities. But with freeways isolating neighborhoods and lack of public transportation, the bridges were never built and the gaps never filled. Diversity remained in its own quarters. Korean students never need to step outside Koreatown's borders in the mid-Wilshire district. My Persian students can get all their needs met by speaking Farsi in the area called Tehrangles (aka: Little Persia), along Westwood and Pico. What then is the motivation for learning English?

Visiting the Taper Auditorium
Central Public Library

Let me put myself in my students' shoes. They are tired, they are weary, they don't trust the natives: we speak too fast, are rude, don't give them the time of day. Immigrants are what they'll remain forever in our eyes, or until they get their citizenship papers, but even then, nothing changes.

And yes, they're partly to blame—yet who can blame them?—tied as they are to their communities through family, commerce and familiarity. But still... many of them never leave their neighborhoods. They've never visited LACMA, two blocks from school, or Griffith Park, a mile away. The older ones have grown accustomed to their lives, settling for a four-block square. But the younger ones want more. After graduating they go on to LACC, or Cal State LA, or any number of vocational schools. They are motivated to learn English...but perhaps, even more, to learn a little Spanish for their work.

Ah, sigh. My students may drive me crazy with their messed-up English, but I salute them for at least trying. 

And Sunny, who just graduated, I will miss you more than most. Despite your size, you were a handful, one of my fiercest students ever.

at LACMA, on a recent field trip

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, Charlotte. It's a fascinating problem - why some people learn the language of their new culture with relative ease & others struggle for a lifetime. I love your posts about your job, despite (because of?) your ambivalence about the work.