Just as i was picking up my kids for the first day of class, i was told that one of my new students, “Zhang”*, might need to be referred for special education testing because “he has been here since second grade but still doesn’t speak English”. I made a mental note to be aware of this teacher’s observation since it could mean so many different things.
When I was talking to the class later, they asked me what languages I speak. I told them English and Spanish, and I used to know Italian and Japanese. But I told them I love learning all languages and know a word or two in a few others, like Chinese.
I then noticed Zhang, turn to another Chinese student. I understood his tone of voice, body language which indicated derision, and I heard him say “ni hao”. So, I looked at him and, to his surprise, said, “Yes, Zhang, ‘ni hao’ is one of the phrases I know. As well as “xie xie”.
It was in that moment that I decided the issue of his not speaking English was likely not a reason for concern or testing. It appeared to be more about choice and perhaps anger and other emotions bound up in learning this new language when, it would seem, no one had bothered to learn his. I’m inferring a lot here, I know, but there were other indications. So I decided to get to know him better.
I asked another boy (who came to the US last year and told everyone his name was “Tom” but told me today he preferred his Chinese name, “Yao” when I asked), Wang, and Zhang to come to my desk. I pulled up Google maps and went to China. I asked where they were from. They seemed confused and since a lot of my students have come from Fuzhou, I asked if that’s where they were from. This got them talking and pointing and soon we were zooming into the map, looking at where they were each from. Yao was explaining to me how they were all from places near to each other, and by the water.
Not long after, Zhang started to talk to me, too. In English.
This is the kind of start to a school year I like.
(*no student names used on this blog are real)