Not Quite Trilingual

Radio Writing

Andrea came into the public school system speaking basic Spanish and Kanjobal.

After five years of English Only classes, she’s struggling to communicate — in any language.


Andrea Antonio, at age eight. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

Nick Blumberg: Kids who enter the public school system learning English regularly underperform in almost every way we measure them, from achievement scores to graduation rates. So for years, a debate has raged across the country over how to best teach these kids English. About 10 years ago, voters in California overwhelmingly decided bilingual education was not the right way. They passed a proposition put on the ballot by software developer and millionaire Ron Unz.

Ron Unz: This is not an English Only initiative. This is not an English First initiative. This is English For The Children!

Arizona soon followed California’s lead, and so did Massachusetts. In all three states, English Immersion programs replaced bilingual education. They were supposed to help close the achievement gap, but by most measures — they haven’t. We want to know why. Fronteras reporter Devin Browne follows one Los Angeles student through five years of English Immersion classes, and finds that she’s still struggling to communicate — in any language.

Devin: Andrea was like a lot of the first graders I used to teach in LA. She came from a home where lots of languages were spoken, and she told me she could speak three of them.

Andrea: I speak Spanish, English, and Kanjobal.

Devin: At the time she said this, when she was just six, 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.

Andrea, in a hand game with her sister, Marcia: Limonada! (Clap, clap, clap.) Con helada! (Clap, clap, clap.)

Devin: She spoke Spanish and Kanjobal, a Mayan language, with her parents, who are both from Guatemala.

Andrea: Patte means tortillas. And ubal means like — those little thingies. Frijoles. Beans.

Devin: And she spoke English at school — Esperanza Elementary — with me, her first grade teacher.

Andrea: We were drawing all the planets. I think I know all of them.

Devin: 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. This 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 — 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.

Nikki: The child is leading their parent through the conference and they have to tell their parent about their work 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.” 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?

Devin: 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 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 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 of Esperanza 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 six 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 all alone: She couldn’t really talk to anyone, because she didn’t really have the words.

At this point, when kids are trapped in their own heads, without language to help them out, teachers typically see one of two things happen. One involves hitting. Esperanza teacher Lillian Thompson puts it like this:

Lillian: And 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.

Devin: Or, alternatively, teachers say they see kids just quietly fade away. Researchers who study drop-out rates say that dropping out is the final act of disengagement, final meaning that disengagement is a process that can start when kids are very young. Here’s one response to this common retreat from teacher John Bohm:

John: Those are the kids you really worry about. 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, whereas the kid who is very silent, they’re really falling between the cracks. And they can’t access anything, their academic language in their native tongue, in Spanish or in English.

Devin: 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.

So, Andrea’s home first.

act1_photo_andrea's family portrait

Sonia, Andrea, Guadalupe, Marcia. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

Andrea: Hi! My name is Andrea. 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 Yobani.

Devin: 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 for years, until Andrea was nine. Andrea’s mom adores Andrea, in fact she adores Andrea so much that Andrea’s siblings, Sonia and Yobani, think that Andrea is their mom’s favorite.

Sonia: She takes her, everywhere she goes, my mom, it’s always Andrea.

Yobani: Only like once a year, she takes Marcia. That is something rare.

Devin: And all the other times?

Yobani: Andrea.

Devin: 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 very much. And — this would be the second reason her Spanish isn’t very strong — when Andrea’s parents are home, they speak to her sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in Kanjobal. (This is important to note, because there’s research that says that students who come from homes with a strong foundation in a primary language can do well in English Immersion classes.)

Andrea’s parents, Pascual and Guadalupe, were born in the Guatemalan state of Barillas to parents who were farmers and street vendors. It is 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 anything to do with their formal schooling.  Pascual completed sixth grade, Guadalupe stopped after second. 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, 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 awhile, 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.

Pascual, through a translator: And I understand math. What I can’t understand — is English.  

Devin: 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. This leaves only Andrea’s siblings to help her if she gets lost. It 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.

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

So Andrea does most her schoolwork on her own. Sometimes it’s haunting to read. In first grade, during a unit on maps, all the kids were asked to make a map of their apartment and label each room. Most of the kids brought in sketches of studios or one-bedrooms with the words “la cocina” next to the kitchen and “la sala” next to a couch, and in one case “computer” written next to a PC. 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, if 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, and only much later, during a visit to her house, did the insects come up again.

Devin: Do you like where you live?

Andrea: No. It’s cause I don’t want no spiders, no cock-a-roach and no rats.

Devin: Do you have ticks?

Andrea: What’s a tick?

Devin: Ticks are little black insects that crawl up beneath your skin.

Andrea: No.

Devin: Do you have bedbugs?

Andrea: No.

Devin: No chinches?

Andrea: No. Yes! Sometimes I do.

Devin: She definitely did. She knew just where the bedbugs, or chinches, lived and just how they died. When I visited her, she showed me, which wasn’t hard — they were everywhere.

After Ron Unz’s English-only initiative passed in California in 1998, the state didn’t just lose most of its bilingual classes, it also lost about half of its bilingual teachers — bilingual teachers who are really useful in situations like this one. Not only are they better able to assess their students academically, they’re statistically more likely to engage the parents of English learners, they’re also able to ask kids like Andrea things in Spanish that she might not know how to tell them in English: insects, yes, but also various forms of neglect or abuse that are hard to explain in any language, but especially a second or third language. So not only was Andrea missing any support at home for what goes on at school, she also wasn’t able to get any support at school for what happens at home.

MacArthur Park postcard, drawn by Andrea's classmate, Marlon.

MacArthur Park postcard, drawn by Andrea’s classmate, Marlon.

Fruit truck bugle: Tamales, champarrado!

Devin: MacArthur Park, in Los Angeles, where Andrea lives and goes to school, is the densest neighborhood in the United States outside of Manhattan. Its written language is neither Spanish, nor English, but, like Andrea, somewhere in between. Stores and signs say things like “Mucho Bargain” and “Regalos para Baby Shower.” Often this signage is 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 every day between home and school and back again. It’s the only place she knows. There is her house, her school and her mom’s clothing factory, downtown, 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 LA.

Andrea, at Esperanza Elementary. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

Andrea, at Esperanza Elementary. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

Devin: And it’s this place Andrea comes to school from. She doesn’t fully learn English here, just like she doesn’t fully learn Spanish or Kanjobal at home or in her neighborhood. One reason why is that even though Andrea’s class is called an “English Immersion” class, it’s really not, because almost all of her classmates are also learning English and the teacher is usually the only native English speaker in the room, so they mostly end up mimicking the broken English of each other. It is also doesn’t help that the English Andrea is surrounded by at school is mainly the very specific, almost non-sensical language of the district’s reading program.

Open Court tape: Goo! Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. What could be making that sound?

This is some of the first English Andrea hears.

Open Court tape: Could it be a new flute playing a tune? No! It’s goo.

Devin: And when she isn’t hearing English like this, she’s reading it, in printed hand-outs 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:

Andrea: Once and again, something in Paul’s net caught into became taught.

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

Andrea: Um, secret stuff.

Devin: What kind of secret stuff?

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

Devin: Throughout Andrea’s elementary school career, she consistently scores above average in math and far below average in reading, 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. 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:

Andrea: I want to know how to say ice, rice, ice. Ice and rice rhyme.

Devin: It was so many little things like this that together they added up to a kind of English that was in many ways like the English she read in her decodables — non-sensical, out of context, not relevant.

A lot of the teachers at Esperanza sensed this disconnect in the kids, but could do little about it. The district mandated exactly how teachers spent their time, and because LA 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 — which brings us to the third reason Andrea didn’t learn fluent English at school. Instead of hearing about “yawls” in context, in a science lesson about fishing and boats, for example, she learned about yawls in a phonics lesson, with words yawl shared vowels with.

The district was serious about what could be taught when, 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 yawls and prawns.

Lillian: And it made it very nerve-wracking to work there.

Devin: Again, teacher Lillian Thompson.

Lillian: 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 grey. You know this is a wig, right? Ok. And bald spots, all my hair came out. When I was ready to quit and near a nervous break down, I was  . . .

Devin: She goes 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.

Lillian: Where it said “120,” “80,” the kids were reading between 30 and 40 words. 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!”

Devin: 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 would tell me his fluency score, the exact number 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, this was her reason:

Andrea: Because Mr. Ramirez wants us to read high and I can’t.

Devin: Do you think it would be exciting if you could read all the words?

Andrea: Yes.

Devin: 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 there’s no cooking or sewing at school. similarly, the kind of English she was learning, academic English — the names of the planets, for example, or words from decodables about yawls — had no way into a conversation in Spanish at home.

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

Andrea: I talk weird.

Devin: Says who?

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

Devin: Andrea’s parents knew she was struggling. Pascual even considered transferring her to one of the bilingual classes at school, but worried Andrea was overwhelmed enough. So, in the end, decided against it. But even if he hadn’t, it would have been too late. First, because Andrea never learned how to read or write in Spanish, and by this point, her oral skills are shaky. She would not have been able to keep up. Second, the bilingual program at Esperanza is disappearing.


Lillian Thompson, 2009. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.


Lynda Ayalla, 2009. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

In theory, Unz’s Proposition 227, “English For The Children”, was supposed to wipe out bilingual programs in California. In practice, it didn’t — it just made it so parents had to request a waiver to enroll in a bilingual class. As in the bilingual classes before Proposition 227, the goal is English. Reading, writing, and knowing academic Spanish are stepping stones. Here’s Esperanza Principal Felicia Michell on the waiver program:

Felicia: We are using their native language, Spanish, to teach the core curriculum while they learn English until such time they are ready to transition to a full English program. The goal is not to be bilingual, biliterate, which causes some confusion.

Devin: But even without the stated goal of biliteracy, the teachers at Experanza have managed to achieve something close. Teachers like Lynda Ayalla notice this:

Lynda: My children coming from Spanish, were able to spell for the English-only kids, the [English Immersion] kids, they were able to tell them, “Oh no that means this” and spell it out for them. My kids had a true sense of being bilingual and these are only first graders. My Spanish-speaking kids who had Spanish and English were able to help the kids who only spoke English.

Devin: And like most advocates of bilingual education, Lillian Thompson, who has taught many grades, sees that the benefits are much later down the line.

Lillian: Because a word like “penultimate” would pop out of their mouths in English instead of “next to the last.” They would understand if I said, “You need to masticate the food carefully.” “Masticar” means “chew.”

Devin: It’s unlikely students at Esperanza will one day see these results though, because again, the bilingual program is going away, in favor of the English Immersion program Andrea’s been in. Officially this is because fewer parents are requesting the waiver class. I asked principal Felicia Michell if the parents ever asked her advice in which program to choose, and she said:

Felicia: Sure.

Devin: And what do you tell them?

Felicia: That we can inform, and not influence. So we give them the information and not any personal opinion, belief, bias. It’s the parents choice, it needs to be the parent’s choice.

Nikki: Now the administration says that these are the choices that the parents are making . . .

Again, Esperanza teacher Nikki Reich.

Nikki: But one parent had her student in my class and I noticed he was just crying, he just seemed miserable all day long. I talked to the mom, in my broken Spanish. You know I have 26 in my class. The bilingual class, where you might be more comfortable because the teacher can help you in your own language, has 14, and I’m wondering if maybe he would like to move to his class. And the mom said that she had wanted him in that bilingual class, but the office didn’t put him in that class.

Devin: This story is so common that almost all of the teachers that I interviewed at Esperanza told it, or some variation of it.

Lillian: There have been various attempts to wipe us out.

Lynda: One of the situations was a parent that came to sign up her child; she was told there was no room, so they had to put her child back in an English class.

Lillian: Because the parents come back and ask — Well I asked about bilingual classes. They said there weren’t any. I said, you need to go and ask them to put your name on a list. They were told to go to another school, the other school said: Esperanza has bilingual classes.

Nikki: Maybe the mom was confused. And again, [some of them] don’t read either — so they’re relying on us and the administration to help them work through this labyrinth of paper that is so confusing for them.

Lillian: When 20 parents put their name on a list and say, “I want a bilingual class,” it must be provided. But if parents don’t know they have the right to have their names put on a list and to have a copy of the list, it’s finished.

Lynda: The point was: There was room. She was told there wasn’t.

Devin: The most common theory as to why this was happening, why the bilingual program that was mostly producing bilingual and biliterate kids was being abandoned for programs like English Immersion that produced kids like Andrea, was simple: in the short-term kids in bilingual programs often don’t test as well on English exams (like the CST); sometimes the benefits don’t show up until fifth grade, the last year of elementary school. Ms. Michell doesn’t have the luxury of waiting that long. All principals in LAUSD are under considerable pressure to reclassify every student as fluent in English by the time they go to middle school. If they don’t, the students will be stuck in remedial English classes instead of tracked for college.

Interestingly, as bilingual programs in poor schools like Andrea’s disappear, they grow more popular in wealthier schools every year. The popular bilingual programs are generally dual-language and they are different than the program at Esperanza in their stated goals (bilingualism and biliteracy) and requisite demographics (half native English speakers, half speakers of Spanish or Mandarin or any other language). These programs rely on schools which are integrated, and Andrea’s school, like most schools in LAUSD, is not.

Andrea and Marcia. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

Andrea and Marcia. Photo by Louise Baker Lee.

Andrea: Ok classroom, today we’re going to learn about math. and then we’re going to learn -about divisions. Ok, Melanie tell me about one division.

Devin: Here is school as Andrea sees it. She’s in charge, it’s her classroom — which is really her living room. Andrea is nine here. 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 actually the third time this has happened in two months. So in lieu of being in actual school, she’s set it up at home, something her brother says she does pretty regularly.

Yobani: She gets weird paper there and gets some markers and whatever she can find on the floor as students and she starts talking to them.

Andrea: It’s 7 divided by 12. You might get it.

Yobani: [She] screams at them, gives them detention.

Andrea: Ok, Marlon, go to the rug! I’m going to call your parents if you talk again. And you’re sending a letter home today.

Devin: She goes from division to fractions to recess, telling me explicitly that she does not and will not teach reading. In fact, 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 that looked like it had never been opened before. She and her sister did 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.

Andrea, reading: Exclamation point.

Devin: 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.

act6_andrea in red

Andrea: I want to learn more Spanish because my mom — she usually knows more Spanish than her language. I want to learn more Guatemalan too.

Devin: 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, 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 high-rise apartment building, the five of them plus a friend of the family in a studio. What Andrea says she misses most is the front porch and the driveway her old apartment had. She used to play outside there with her sister Marcia every day: cashier, princess, and one especially dramatic game, called manager, which was based on their actual old apartment manager, who Andrea described like this:

Andrea: He’s strong; he’s like a bully.

Devin: Your manager is like a bully?

Andrea: Kind-of. Sometimes, yes.

Devin: The way the game goes is that Andrea and a few girls from the back house 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. Like most of the kids in this neighborhood, she’s an almost expert witness on slum lords, sweat shops, overcrowded schools, and so many other problems of our city. Obviously, she has a lot to say, but if she doesn’t have the words, how will she ever tell us?