Language Barrier

I call a new student’s home number and ask for the parent. The parent can tell I do not speak Spanish as I completely mangle pronouncing his name. He starts to tell me that he speaks only Spanish, in a mix of English and Spanish, and then I say I am calling about tutoring his daughter, through the program that makes it free for them.

At that point he switches into flawless English and gets down to business. We arrange a time and place to meet and his concern with the program, having already gone through two other tutors for his daughter, and there were absolutely no barriers to our communication. I wonder how many times he pulls that when telemarketers call. No Habla Inglis. No indeedy, not for the unwanted calls.

I use the same in reverse when being solicited on the streets at night in my neighborhood. No Habla Espanol, I mumble and keep walking. I also don’t look them in the eye, and keep moving. I get their intent. They usually get my intent, if they aren’t too inebriated.

One of my students has started whining and begging when I ask that we move on to doing something else in our 90 minute sessions. I usually acquiese to her demands, as we are still working on at least something of the three things we should be working on. I told her no begging at the onset of this behavior. She immediately played the language card and said she didn’t understand what the word begging meant. I said she most certainly did, and did not bother elaborating.

The other day, she asked me why I didn’t speak Spanish. I told her I grew up someplace where everyone spoke English, and in fact, the most useful foreign language to learn was French, for quick trips across the Canadian border to Quebec. That little bit of geography went over her head, I know, but then she told me she hadn’t spoken any English since the last day we had our tutoring session. I said I doubted that, since she had been in school since then. I don’t doubt that she herself may have chosen to not have spoken any English in the meanwhile, but I can’t imagine that a regular Los Angeles public elementary school did not have English spoken and written all about her. She told me her family only spoke Spanish and there was no need to speak any English. She continually tells me she speaks no English, speaking it clearly and understandably in English, as we practice writing English words and sentences in cursive.

I worry about her using language as a deliberate wedge to create misunderstanding and to get her way, when she understands perfectly well. She is in third grade.


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