Student struggling with English language homework. Photo by Danielle Karpel.


Column: English learners feel left behind

Immigrants often lack resources and tools, such as a computer or translator to help them overcome their language barrier while learning online.
<a href="" target="_self">Danielle Karpel</a>

Danielle Karpel

April 29, 2022
The pandemic has led to a huge shift in learning. This change to remote and online learning has been challenging, but now imagine the challenge of a language barrier on top of that. Language barriers can be very tricky to navigate, especially in a world that has been long devoid of human interactions.

Currently, in America, there are many students who struggle with learning the English language. These non-English speakers are called English learners. English learners are students whose first language is not English and who are currently trying to learn the language.

According to the Los Angeles Times, ​​there are “more than 1.1 million students in California, nearly 20%, are considered English learners.” Learning to be fluent in any language is incredibly challenging, and this problem affects more high school students than we think.

English learners come of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, and I myself was an English learner when I was younger. As an English learner, I came from a non-English speaking household where English was not my first language. I eventually was put into an American school where I struggled to learn the English language for a period of time.

I am not the only one in my family affected by this. My father was an immigrant who also had to go through the struggles of a language barrier, which posed a major challenge for him throughout his life.

The language barriers in high school have always been a challenge for non-English speakers. But the last two years of online distance learning have only exacerbated this issue, especially within underserved immigrant communities. Immigrants often lack resources and tools, such as a computer or translator to help them overcome their language barrier while learning online.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has reported that “42% of grades earned by English learners in high school were Ds and Fs, an increase of 10 percentage points from the prior year.” The coronavirus is contributing to the struggle of English learners because in-person classes and interaction are key to picking up a language.

When I was put in an American school for the first time, I struggled for some time, but having the opportunity to learn in person around my fellow classmates and English speakers helped me pick up the language and its little nuances much more quickly.

Dr. Sita Patel, a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University who studies the emotional health of immigrant youth, explained that “for English-language learners, if you’re not having those casual, informal, low-stakes opportunities to practice English, you’re really at a disadvantage.” Being around English speakers greatly helped me learn the language, so I feel sad for those who no longer have the same opportunities during this challenging time.

Even though we have returned to in-person learning for a full semester, we still have to make up for two years of distance learning. When I am at school, I see many non-English speaking students struggle around me. They suffer because they have not practiced speaking English with real people for two years. Speaking English on a computer screen greatly limited their ability to learn. When called on to speak in class, they would hesitate and have a difficult time getting the correct words out.

The language barrier struggle faced by English learners has long been a problem that has not been adequately addressed. According to the LA Times, “for nearly two decades, California operated under rules approved by voters in 1998, which sought to minimize bilingual education in favor of English-only instruction, under the argument that it failed to assimilate students and wasted resources.”

This voting outcome truly hurt the education of non-English speakers. With the proper resources, English learners could thrive and obtain an amazing education. But currently, this is not the case since the graduation rate in California for English learners decreased from 84% overall to 69% in 2020, highlighting a gap.

Thus, our goal should be to promote bilingual education and do everything in our power to provide resources and help for English learners during this time.

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