The Magazine of South Carolina

English, the New Language

Article by AÔda Rogers, photos by Michael Seeley

She said they would be cute. And she was right. Becky Krantz, a teacher in Irmo, loves teaching English to the chocolate-eyed children who gather around her table each day. They come from Nigeria, China, India, Vietnam, Ethiopia and elsewhere, and they love the games they play with Mrs. Krantz. She is one of about 200 ESOL teachers in South Carolina, a state that, like the rest of the country, is experiencing global change.

"Itís the magic of learning," she explains, bubbling with enthusiasm for her job and students. Sheís fast to tell you ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) is the more-correct term for the better-known ESL - English as a Second Language. The truth is, these children probably speak two or three languages already. English is just another.

Still, English is strictly what Krantz uses on the job. Her busy portable classroom at Seven Oaks Elementary School in Lexington District 5 is decorated with colorful things from other places: a Mexican piŮata, a Japanese parasol, a wall hanging from Colombia. "We are the world" proclaims a banner in the room, and in here, thatís so.

With 36 of its 452 students speaking 15 languages, Seven Oaks truly is an international school. Students may be the children of Mexican and Chinese restaurant owners or Asian or Indian professors at USC in Columbia. More rural schools in South Carolina are teaching the children of migrant workers or permanent employees of construction companies and poultry plants. Other students may be the offspring of executives who work for corporations headquartered abroad. Add refugees from war-ravaged countries and overseas orphans adopted by American couples, and the traditional black-and-white South Carolina classroom takes on much more color. Itís a trend Krantz enjoys.

"This is a new adventure," she says. "Itís not like teaching History 101. Every time a student comes in thereís just something intriguing and magical about it. Every day I learn something from them even more than what I give to them."

Among other things, sheís learned Indian children "bobble" their heads to show they agree with you; children from the Marshall Islands raise their brows to mean yes and touch their ears to mean no.


Becky Krantz and her students.

According to preliminary figures at the State Department of Education, there are about 7,000 LEP (Limited English Proficient) students in South Carolinaís public schools. While this is not quite one percent of the entire public school enrollment of 660,070, itís enough to make a difference, says Ruta Couet, foreign languages/ESOL consultant with the State Department of Education (SDE). "Hilton Head Elementary has 388 Limited English Proficient students. Huge. Even in a small school, if you have 25 kids in a class and seven or eight are Limited English Proficient, that has a serious impact on the instruction because the teacher needs to provide additional services." Indeed, Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head Island, serves 562 LEP students, making it South Carolinaís third-leading county. The first is Greenville County, with 728 LEP students, followed by Charleston County, with 597 students. Of the stateís 85 school districts, 75 are serving LEP students. Couet predicts all 85 districts will have LEP students within five years.

"South Carolina is a microcosm of whatís going on nationally," Couet says, reporting that 57 languages, not including English, are spoken here. "There is a significant foreign investment in this state and certainly all of our leaders court that. Thereís no question in my mind that this will continue."

And thereís no question South Carolina must provide adequate instruction. Federal law mandates it. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin for programs that receive federal funding. The Office for Civil Rights interpreted that law to include equal access to education. "We have to make it as accessible as possible. Thatís our mission," Couet says. "The United States has a very generous policy on education. We donít ask questions regarding their immigration status. We tell schools itís against the law to ask about immigration status. All they need is proof of age and immunization records."

When teachers and administrators get frustrated with the challenges LEP students present, and counter that these children might be gone tomorrow, Couet is ready with her response: "They are here today and you donít know how long theyíre going to be here. The mission of the American educational system is to educate the masses and do it as best we can. What we donít invest in education we will invest later on as a society, either in welfare or the prison system or some other areas. If we do our jobs right in early childhood education, we wonít have to worry about the rest."

Making things easier is the SDEís contract with TransACT Communication, a company that provides translations in 22 languages. With a computer stroke, teachers can send home school forms to parents in a language they understand. If the parents speak a language TransACT doesnít have, itís up to the educators to find interpreters and conduct parent-teacher meetings in person or by conference call.

"This is his first day of school and the terror in his eyes is almost like a deer at night," Krantz says of 8-year-old Carlos Marquez, carefully dressed in a light blue button-down shirt and totally lost in the English language. She guides him through a corn dog and honey bun lunch and later discusses the emotions that make this so hard. Frustration is one. The vagaries of the language are another.

"We cry sometimes," Krantz says, nodding sympathetically as Berina Keric talks about her struggles with "here" and "hear." At 9, Berina already speaks Bosnian, German, Dutch and Spanish; among many Europeans, itís common to know more than one language. Berina and her family left Bosnia and were sponsored by a church to come to the midlands. Her father is a welder, her mother a supervisor at Wal-Mart. Her older sister drives a car - something women in Bosnia didnít do. Her mother used to work at an International House of Pancakes; pancakes, Berina says, arenít too common in Bosnia.

When she got upset and cried doing homework, her mother cheered her on, Berina remembers. A recent 100 on a spelling test was "awesome," a proud Krantz adds, remembering that the fourth-grader couldnít speak any English when she arrived in August 2000. Krantz also taught Berinaís older sister Belgina. By computer and e-mail, she monitors her studentsí progress and grades through graduation. Thatís 150 students in Lexington District 5 for her to keep up with. She also takes her current students to grocery stores, McDonaldís and Mexican restaurants so they can practice their English in practical settings. Every January, she helps organize an international dinner for the ESOL students and their parents throughout the district.

Some districts have created magnet schools especially for LEP students. Greenville County has three magnet schools, Richland four. Districts must provide the money for these classes; Couet reports that 41 districts in South Carolina will receive Emergency Immigration Education Funds in 2001Ė02.

Different cultures fascinate Krantz. But theyíre important for mainstream teachers to understand, too. Good teachers will invest the time to learn about their studentsí cultures, knowing it will make things easier in the long run. It also makes an ally of parents who donít want their children to give up their culture of origin. Cooperation between parents, teachers and schools means a better education for the child.

So believes Cori Yochim, an ESOL expert hired by the State Department of Education to train teachers via television. A Chicago native who speaks five languages and earned her masterís degree in ESOL at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, Yochim teaches core classes through SC Educational Television. Through SCETVís Instructional Television services, Yochim can instruct teachers across the state from a studio in Columbia. Teachers watch from the media centers in their schools.

Besides theory and methodology, Yochim can share other helpful snippets: In France, children stand up to ask questions, and boys and girls line up separately. Asian children are taught itís rude to look a person in the eye. Geometry teachers may want to use models of the pyramids to teach Egyptian students; subject-verb-object sentences are easiest to understand. It doesnít hurt to talk slowly (not loudly), and a little empathy goes a long way.

Yochim recalls a conference she conducted for teachers in Orangeburg earlier this year. She spoke totally in French for five minutes. "They listened politely for the first minute, then they started getting antsy and nudging one another, getting aggravated. They were getting angry. Then I switched back to English and said, ĎSo how did it feel?í " Yochim was illustrating how important it is for teachers to use pictures, charts or other "realia" to support a lecture. Teachers should realize that just because a student canít speak English does not mean he or she is not worth teaching.

"These Italian kids who come over with such a rich knowledge of architecture and art, and these German and Russian kids who excel in math and science - they canít enrich us with what they have if they canít share," she reasons.

Yochim and Couet appear monthly on a live television program that airs in public schools. These "Town Meetings" allow ESOL teachers across the state to network with one another. South Carolina uses technology to make teacher training available. All public schools have Internet access, and through the SDEís Web site, ESOL teachers keep posted on whatís new. Notes Couet: "We can do a lot of things with technology that we couldnít in the past."

No South Carolina college or university offers all 18 hours ESOL teachers need, making it difficult for them to earn a certificate in this growing field. The College of Charleston is considering a proposal for a full-certificate program, says Dr. Angela Cozart, assistant professor in its School of Education. She is a champion of ESOL teachers. "They are so dedicated, and they wear so many different hats. Many times, if the students are having problems at home, the teachers are the only people they can talk to."

Still, itís comforting to know children are universal in their behavior. A morning with Krantz proves that. Maria Gutierrezí thick black braid dangles enticingly down her back. One little boy canít take his eyes off it. When Krantz walks her students down the breezeway to be returned individually to their regular classrooms, a string of boys take pains not to step on the cracks. They giggle, they grimace, they like Britney Spears.

ESOL students may spend 30-90 minutes at a time with Krantz. They read books, use flash cards and go over words. Different games help the children relax and have fun while they learn; often theyíre silent and insecure in their regular classrooms. Because she knows the curriculum, Krantz can help the students with their classes and homework. Rarely are ESOL students with her for just a year; most study with her as long as theyíre at Seven Oaks, a K-5 school. It takes one to three years to become conversant in another language, Couet says, but five to seven to be able to read and write it adequately on an academic level.

"Itís a true gift in life to know other languages," says Couet, who speaks three. Born in New Jersey to WWII refugees from Lithuania, Couet married a Frenchman and taught English overseas. "I know what itís like to go into a job and speak a language that is not your native language and have to compete with people. I have great empathy for people who donít speak the language." The SDE wants children to learn the value of other languages, she says, and to recognize the experiences they can provide.

When is it easiest to learn another language? At age 5 or 6, Yochim says, when youíre still learning your native language. High school, when most foreign languages are taught in the United States, is the worst time, Couet says. "Developmentally, the brain does marvelous things before age 10."

Learning other languages can only improve your English, Yochim points out. Meanwhile, Couet issues a reminder that America was and still is a nation of immigrants. "Thatís the whole richness of our country and our culture. We need to be as welcoming as we can."

* BB&T, Lexington, SC
* First Community Bank

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