THE SETTING AND THE STUDENTS
In this section, I describe the context and participants of this study. I would like to take readers along a journey to present the culture, the campus, and the people. Spradley (1980) calls the general broad overview of a qualitative study the "grand tour" and the observations with more specific focus the "minitours." First, I have included a description of the town of Colinas that highlights its unique character as a community in the center of the island. Then I take the readers to the campus where I taught and conducted the interviews and into a session of a class. In the remainder of the chapter, I have narrowed the focus to present profiles based on the interviews with the five participants of this study: Juan, Pablo, Diana, Maria, and Jose.
In creating the profiles, I translated passages from interviews and edited them to avoid repetitions and digressions and to provide a chronological order. I shaped this material to compose the stories of the participants, and I present them in the first person in the following pages.
Each of these stories is prefaced by a description
of the participant and the incidents surrounding the interview. I have
followed each story with my own impressions about the interviews.
The Town of Colinas
Views of the town of Colinas are like paintings of the most beautiful country scenes to be found anywhere in the world. Native trees, warbling birds nesting in the woods, and hawks soaring in the sky are part of the natural habitat of this region. This town is only a short distance from the modern capital, yet it is so different in customs, traditions, and life?styles. In this central area of Puerto Rico, many people attempt to keep their culture alive through traditions that were handed down from the "jibaros," our native mountain ancestors, in music, Puerto Rican cuisine, and handicrafts.
The strings of "el cuatro," guitars, maracas, and "guiro" invite everyone to sing and dance to the "le to lai" tunes all year round, whereas in other parts of the island this music is heard only during the Christmas season. Both young and old express their cultural heritage through this art, thus passing on the tradition of a "buen Puertorriqueño."
During the ten years that I worked in Colinas, I observed a growing interest in preserving and appreciating this cultural tradition. In this part of the island, there are historical museums that reflect aspects of the sociopolitical past of Puerto Rico, and there is also an active cultural center that promotes activities to develop talent in poetry, prose, and drama. Among these activities is a popular fair which has been held for a number of years. Here Puerto Rican handicrafts are exhibited and sold to the public, thus fostering national identity and carrying on traditional lore. As a part of this cultural heritage, men and a handful of women compete in a "Certamen de Trovadores" by singing specific themes from "pie forzao" to their homeland, town, culture, community, and sweethearts. This music has inspired the younger generation to make an adaptation of these themes and melodies to the style of "la nueva trova," widely popular today.
Colinas is a town where most of the traditional sports and games, such as cock fights and dominoes, are still encouraged. In these sports, males usually participate by themselves, projecting in this way the cultural pattern of machismo.
In addition to this cultural richness, many Colinians are hospitable, humble, and humanitarian. It is not unusual during an unexpected visit to a home to be invited for a cup of coffee or a meal. In fact, it is actually expected that one accept such invitations as a sign of friendship.
While living in Colinas for three years, during which this study was undertaken, I observed religion as another important aspect of the lives of these people. In the community, there are many scheduled religious activities, some of which are held not only in churches and temples but also in the homes. I received invitations to attend some of these services. In addition, I have perceived the family as an important cultural component. Colinians share and watch out for one another. Consequently, many parents prefer that their youngsters study in Colinas because they do not want them to leave for the metropolitan area with its high crime rate. Some parents come to the campus to excuse their sons and daughters for absences; they often speak to professors and the chancellor to keep up with what these students are doing.
Culture, according to Robert Lado in Valdes (1986),
is the "ways of a people." I have attempted to describe Colinas and the
ways of life of its people as I perceived them in order to provide a context
for this study of the role English plays in the life of five adult students
in this central area of Puerto Rico, with its distinct cultural differences
from other parts of the island.
Colinas was an interesting site for this study because English is not the language of daily life. It is considered a foreign language. A walk around the town's business district indicates the prevalence of Spanish. The stores are all lined along two perpendicular streets that face the town plaza and church. Most shops have Spanish names, such as Calzado Juan, Descuentos, Super Barato, Tiendas Bonito, and Joyeria Brillantes. Slowly, larger clothing and department stores have been established. The only fast-food restaurant in Colinas is Burger King, which was recently built.
There are few things for students to do for entertainment. Cable television is serviced only in the town area because there have not been poles and lines installed in the suburbs, the barrios. I visited the closest cable television company to inquire about the number of people they service in Colinas, but they did not give out this information. However, after talking to my students in class, I ascertained that many would like to subscribe to cable because, according to them, the local programming is poor. Another option is to rent movies. There are two local video rental stores. I myself subscribed to this service and found a large number of movies with Spanish subtitles. Many Colinians watch rental tapes because there are no movie theaters. The closest one is in La Loma, about 45 minutes away.
Music is another form of recreation. Rock is liked
among many young college students. Some of the adult participants talked
to me about their children listening to rock music, but they say they are
not particularly fond of it. They do not seem to be as much influenced
by English as are the younger students at the Colinas campus.
The Colinas Campus
Colinas's campus is surrounded by a wall that encloses several buildings spread out over the green areas. Colorful flowers, trees, and bushes contrast with the white buildings. The physical structures of the campus evidence the growth and progress of this old college. The original use of this campus seemed to be as a boarding school. Therefore, some of the classrooms look like dormitories.
The main administration building, as well as the
classrooms mentioned above, reflect the Spanish influence in their architecture.
The offices and an adjacent auditorium have red adobe brick floors that
gleam from the polished coating on them,
making them look very traditional. There are several high, round pillars in the auditorium and at the entrance of the two-storey
administration building, which add a modern look.
As enrollment increased, other structures were built, such as the library, a business administration building, and just recently a modern building was opened to replace the old dormitory classrooms. Because these structures were built during different eras, the campus has an eclectic look that reflects Puerto Rico's past and present.
During the day, many students group together to talk, join in songs with guitars and "cuatros" on the grass, and enjoy the natural, carefree environment the campus provides. They can also make use of a student center for table games, television, and leisure. For food, students have a small cafeteria that serves anything from sandwiches to a hot meal. For those with athletic leanings, there is a softball park and a basketball court. Although this campus is small, many students and visitors alike find something here that attracts them; it might well be nature's gifts or lots of camaraderie and human warmth.
In the evening, the scene is different. The groups
of young people give way to an adult student population.
The Opening Day of an Adult Program English Class
When August came in the year in which I planned to collect data for this study, I was enthusiastic and at the same time apprehensive about starting classes, because this was going to be my first opportunity to invite students to talk about their experiences learning English in Puerto Rico. When I walked through the hallway and approached the assigned rooms, I observed that some students were waiting at the door of room A and others were already seated inside. Many of them were eager for me to write my name on the board because I was new to them. I was curious about them, too. As I looked at them, I could observe a fine group of neatly groomed adults who looked like they had a second chance to freshen up during the day. While they fumbled to fill out their index cards with information for the records, I noticed most of the students were women and about a third of the class were men. There was a pregnant woman seated in the back of the room who was trying to do her best in an uncomfortable chair. At a glance, I could observe that some looked younger than others. This was mainly an adult English class.
On our first day, we introduced ourselves by giving
our names, personal information, occupations, and future study goals in
English. The chairs were not in rows but were instead scattered about.
Most of the front seats were empty. I invited the students to move up so
that we could begin our presentations. "Can I say it in Spanish?" one student
asked. "I don't know English." This was what I usually confronted in my
English classes: students afraid to speak in English and with very little interest in doing so. I began modeling my introduction in English and providing encouragement to get them to participate as best they could by introducing themselves. "Any volunteers to go first?" There were none. I decided to call on them according to their seating order, and it turned out that they gave only specific information in short sentences. once in a while someone who seemed to know a little more English would offer additional information, and I could observe the rest of the students look at one another. I perceived there were students with different experiences with English. Some students had been out of school for a long time. In certain cases, people had returned after an absence of as long as 13 years. others had apparently been to the United States and were more proficient in English. The makeup of the class was varied. There was a handful of students who had some English language experience; the rest said they were non-English speakers. Women outnumbered men in this class by about 15 to 7. Most students were between 25 and 45 years old. Some students worked; others were homemakers.
When I began introducing myself in English and talking
about the course objectives, everyone seemed attentive. However, I was
later asked if I was going to speak only English in the class. I guessed
that they did not understand me and wanted, as usual, English taught in
Spanish. I wanted to do something more, and was enthusiastic about my goal.
So I encouraged them to
listen to me carefully and that I would provide them with rich English experiences so they would learn this second language.
After a few sessions, in which I felt I had gained their trust to some extent, I shared with them my preoccupation with the teaching and learning of English in Puerto Rico and explained that I wanted to speak to some of them about their experiences so I could understand, from a student's point of view, what was working and what was not. I emphasized that these conversations would have no repercussions on their grades. I passed around a paper so that those interested could sign their names; I would get back to them. I was on my way to data collection and, looking over the list, saw that, luckily, I had found some students who were interested in the study.
Getting a story from Juan, the first participant
of this study, was challenging because, although I found him interesting,
he was hesitant about being involved in the interviews. Later, I learned
that he feared studying English and also feared that his deep feelings
for his Puerto Rican culture might be different from my views. According
to Juan, some of our classmates encouraged him by telling him that they
had participated in an initial interview, and all he was required to do
was talk. I went on to talk to other students until he willingly came to
me to ask me about the initial interview.
We went to the cafeteria, which is usually quiet and relatively empty at 5:00 p.m., for our first talk. Juan and I sat at a table and spoke over a glass of soda. I asked him how he felt when I invited him for the initial interview session at the beginning of the semester, and he seemed honest and sincere in telling me that he thought he would offend me as an English teacher because he does not like English. However, he said that he began to change this perception and thought this study could help other people like his son.
Throughout our three interview sessions during the
semester, he spoke of the pain he experienced as a student. At times, he
reported that he had been hit by teachers and ridiculed by many of them
when he was in elementary school because he did not know English and was
punished for not knowing. Another of the things that bothered Juan was
the experience he had in English classes with a small number of bilingual
students with whom his teacher compared him. Juan referred to these students
as "gringos." In common with many people in Puerto Rico, he referred to
non?Puerto Rican citizens of the United states as "Americans." In his anger,
he also talked about his defense for the Spanish language in Puerto Rico.
He claimed that a group of politicians was forcing English on him and other
Puerto Ricans when he saw no immediate need for it. He seemed so upset
about this issue that he said he did not want to take my English course.
Furthermore, he said that he found me very strict as a professor, and he
was not willing to deal with the fear he had.
He admitted that our class became for him motivating over time, and he felt less threatened and decided to accept the challenge. Other reasons he added to participate in this study were his career goals. He wants to become an accountant and mentioned that he knew English was important for his studies; therefore, he decided to talk to me.
Juan is tall and has blue eyes. His salt-and-pepper
hair reflects the maturity of his 35 years. He is the youngest of eight
brothers and sisters. His parents have been divorced for over 20 years.
His father is a farmer who sells his goods in the local market of his hometown,
and his mother is a homemaker. Some of Juan's brothers have moved to the
United States, but Juan still lives in Las Flores, where he was born and
raised. At the time of the interviews, Juan mentioned that he was in the
process of obtaining a divorce. This situation made it necessary for him
and his five-year-old son to move in with Juan's mother, who is about 70.
Juan reported that he was angry that the house in which he lived was granted
to his ex-wife through a court order. He did not talk about his ex-wife
in detail, and I respected his privacy.
Juan has traveled to the United states to visit some of his brothers. Also, he has traveled with his softball team to participate in game exchanges on the mainland. Among places he has visited are Florida, Chicago, and New York. When we spoke at the initial session, he said that he used a few English terms in softball, such as first base, second base, pitcher, strike one, home run, and foul ball.
Juan likes to "hang out" with the boys on weekends,
and he also takes time out to be with his son. The rest of his time he
is involved in his job and studies. Currently, he is working for an exterminating
company. At the time of the interviews, he was a salesman in a sports shop.
Prior to these jobs, he mentioned he had worked in factories and a pharmaceutical
Juan studied at a bank institute for a year and took a few computer courses. Since the fall of 1992, he has been matriculated in the Adult Program of Colinas Campus as an accounting student. In his first semester, he took and passed a remedial English course. During this data?collection period, he was enrolled in a basic English course and obtained a "C."
I never liked English, and I didn't study. I wasn't challenged in elementary school to learn English. I was a very frustrated student in my English class. I would go home and throw the books in the corner. It was hard for me to learn English. The class would get harder and harder. At first, the books we used had vocabulary exercises that were easy. All I had to do was look up the word and learn it, but then we went on to reading. That was hard. I didn't like it. I just didn't understand what I was reading, and I couldn't answer the comprehension questions. Then we had grammar. We would have to apply verbs in the past, present, and future tenses, but that wasn't so hard. All I had to do was look at the forms of the verbs and conjugate them. But reading was hard; it was application. I couldn't understand the text because sometimes there was something at the end of the sentence that we usually find at the beginning when we read in Spanish. In Spanish, as I read along the lines, it's all there. In English, I had to go from one part of the sentence to the end to understand what it meant. Passing the English class in elementary school was the most important thing for me at that time because I had to move on to my next grade.
I remember that when there was a test, I hardly knew anything, so I cheated. What the heck, the teacher gave the class with only the "gringos" in mind. That's the term we use to identify those students who know how to speak a lot of English and are Puerto Ricans. If they speak it like an American, we call them "gringos." It made me mad because these students were just like us except that their parents went to the States for a couple of years and then came back. After they came back, they would be speaking English and they thought they were better than we were. I remember their names: Mayra, Olga, and Peter. I think the boy's name was Pedro, but we called him Peter. The other guys and I were mad at Peter, and we would bother him after school. He was easy to bribe. I would send him questions to answer for me on the test. He knew better than to tell on me. I was mad at him for always answering correctly and making the teacher compare us. The teacher would always tell me in class that I didn't do the work like the "gringos" did. Yes, but they knew English; I was the one who didn't know English, and neither did the class. The teacher was supposed to teach us according to what we knew. Comparing us wasn't going to do us any good.
The only way I could fool the teacher was when I cheated on the test. After the teacher gave back the grades, he would reward me by saying, "You see, Juan, I knew you could do it." Are you kidding? He didn't know I copied from Peter. I know it was wrong, but I had to pass the test. I had no choice.
Later on we went to junior high school. We had a tough English teacher. He made me very tense all of the time. In class, I would greet him and he wouldn't respond. Even though I was in a new school, the situation hadn't changed very much. We were the same students all together again as in elementary school. Every time the English teacher gave an exercise, Mayra, Olga, and Peter would answer the questions first so they could impress the teacher.
The teacher was a veteran who had learned English in the army. Although he was strict, he didn't care if we learned or not. He would tell us, "Learn English if you want to; I already did when I went to the army." So as you can imagine, we concentrated only on the tests.
When I went to high school, we moved into the town school. We had always been in the same building in elementary and junior high schools. Now it was a different building, in town, and with new teachers. This time we had to learn not only English but everything. It was like learning to survive. A country school is different from a town school. The group broke up and we were on our own. It all changed. I learned a little bit of English in high school mainly because I sacrificed myself. I really put a lot on my part to do my assignments and pass the English tests. I had an English teacher who was concerned. If I had a question, she'd invite me to stay after class and she would explain things to me. She would show me step-by-step what I was supposed to do. I remember I got a "C" in her class. It was a low "C," but I worked hard for it. The teacher knew I was a "D" student, but she gave me a chance. Before that, I wasn't interested, but this English teacher was different. She gave me confidence; she made a .difference. I sincerely appreciated it.
Deep inside I was always afraid that I would have
to confront other people who knew the English language and that I wouldn't
be able to understand it. I was afraid that everyone would laugh at me.
You know, I didn't want people to say I was trying to be an American. I
am Puerto Rican, and I didn't want to change that. It's not that I had
a fear of English; I was afraid to face other students and teachers and
look stupid making mistakes. I'm not good in English, and I was afraid
to speak it because others would make fun of me.
English in Juan's Life Now
I don't speak English at home, but I know that it's
a necessity in some areas on the island. Now the technology and everything
that's coming into Puerto Rico is in English. If you look for instructions
on how to put something together, it's in English. Even the remote controls
for the television and videos are in English. I see learning English as
a necessity nowadays.
I've taken it more seriously in college. I know the field I am going to study is very competitive, and I decided to come back to study to prepare myself. Here in college, I started with very basic English. Starting over again that first semester was something new for me after all these years. The professor I had helped me a lot; she would explain things, and if we didn't understand, she would speak to me in Spanish. Now, however, I feel that the professors who teach the class only in English challenge me more. But it scares me, because if the professor says, "Speak in English," I hold back. I am afraid that I will make a mistake and that I won't get the message across. Sometimes I'd rather just be quiet and not ask. In the past, teachers would just give the explanations in Spanish, and that's the reason we haven't learned English and maybe never will. We keep dragging out the learning problem year after year. We're never going to learn that way. I want to lose the fear and struggle with English once and for all, even if it means being laughed at.
Another reason that I have to learn English is to get a job. English is a requirement in jobs. You don't need to be completely bilingual, but you must understand English. I've worked in clothing stores and in factories and had to come back to college to get a degree and learn English. In my former job, I worked for a company and I was a quality inspector. There was job promotion opportunity for a supervisory position. I had the manual skills to get that promotion, and everybody where I worked told me I would be a good supervisor. It would mean more money and I had the experience; but everything the company purchased was from the United States, and I needed to know English to make contacts and fill out forms. I tried it, but the other guys knew more English than I did and I couldn't keep up. So I said to myself that I would come back to school and prepare myself to seek other job opportunities. I have to learn English because if I don't, other people who don't have the experience that I have can displace me. If I'm qualified, I can be sure of my job. This motivated me to come back to school.
When the language issue came up in the newspapers, I was angry because the current government of Puerto Rico made the English language equal to the Spanish language. I'm a patriot and I want everything that concerns my country to come before any other. It made me feel so sad. You know, I would like Spanish and my culture to come before English. I'm not against English, and if I could learn more languages, I would learn them; but in Puerto Rico I feel English is going to be hard to adopt as a first language because everything we do here is in Spanish. When we go to a hospital or carry out other basic needs, the language that we use is Spanish.
Making English an official first language obligates us all to learn English, and it makes me angry. The signing of this law makes it all look like a political act that came with the new Republican Party. Right after they won the elections, just two days later, they made the announcement that they were going to change the existing language law derogating Spanish. In the past, the Democratic Popular Party regarded Spanish as the official language of Puerto Rico. They knew how to do it right by putting the Spanish language, the language we Puerto Ricans speak, in its proper place. I don't think it's necessary to force the English language on us and humiliate us.
I'm aware that when we study, we need English. I
also know that Americans who come to the island stay in San Juan to live,
and the English language is used there; but in the center of the island where we live, we don't use it.
This doesn't mean that my family or I won't need English in the future. I know that English is going to be necessary in my son's future as well. I have to help Juanito understand that English is important. I don't want him to do what I did. I never thought English would be beneficial for me. But now I know if I learn English, I can get a better job; and if I learn to lose the fear I have, I can use it when I visit the United States. When I was in school, I didn't have any interest. But now, I know it's not a matter of learning it or not; it's a necessity. That's why I want my son to learn it.
We're in a political status issue right now. God knows whether Puerto Rico will become a state. It might not be right away that we start to speak English when statehood comes along. But more Americans are going to arrive, and it would be better if we knew how to speak English so they won't have to force us. I feel Puerto Rican, but I can also learn to speak English. The new generation should learn both languages. It doesn't matter which political party you belong to; it's beneficial to all of us in the end. English is going to be adopted, and the new generation should have both languages.
I have had to change my view about languages. I feel if I could learn ten languages, I would. I need English to get a good job. But not only that, it will be easier for me when I go to the States because I can be better prepared to speak it. It's a new challenge for me, and I will succeed. I'm not only thinking about myself; I believe I can help my son and other people learn English as well by telling them, "You might not need it now, but you're going to need it in the future. The more English you know, the more money you'll make."
The interesting thing about this is that the more English we learn, the more prepared we will be to use it in any circumstance. Then the Americans will say we are learning it and there will be no need to pressure us. If I can go to the United States and stand up and speak it, I'll feel proud of being a Puerto Rican who knows English. The next time I go to the United States to play softball, I'll be able to say one or two things in English. Imagine that someone starts a conversation with me that I can follow. It will make up for the sacrifices I have made and will show what I have achieved.
In one of my evening English classes, I gave all
of my students an assignment to find a newspaper article about language
issues in Puerto Rico and write an entry in their class journals. Pablo's
arms flung up in the air, and he said, "At last, we can talk about this."
His expression of relief and the experiences he related made him an interesting
participant for this study.
Pablo inquired about my doctoral study, and I invited him to talk to me in an initial interview session. We met in the humanities lounge and conducted the interviews in the evenings. We did not meet on class days because of his tight schedule. At the outset, Pablo inquired about the number of interviews we would hold. "Three interviews?" Pablo asked. "That is going to depend on how much we get done," I replied. But actually, in the end Pablo was not willing to participate in more than three, and I respected his decision. We had a lapse of three months before the final interview because Pablo was ill and had what he described as personal problems.
Pablo is from the same town located in the center of the island as the previous participant, Juan. He is 26 years old and married. Pablo comes from a large family, of which three members are teachers. Two of his sisters were fifth- and sixth-grade teachers at his elementary school, and one of his brothers taught at the junior high school he attended. Another brother joined the army and lives in the United States. Pablo's parents are still alive, and he reported that his mother was taught English in school because at one time in Puerto Rico the language policy required that all classes be taught in English. Pablo's sisters, he said, learned English in school. He said that things have changed now and that it has been hard for him to learn English. Currently, he is an assistant vocational teacher who states he enjoys teaching and is concerned about the learning problems students have.
Pablo's wife is an English-speaking Puerto Rican.
They met in high school when she arrived from Florida to attend the same
school where he was studying. After their graduation, they entered a state
college. Pablo's wife continued her studies and became an elementary-school
English teacher, while Pablo dropped out during his freshman year and joined
the army. They got married and have a young son. At home, their son is
sharing two languages, mom's English and dad's Spanish. They both have
agreed to make the child strong in his native language, Spanish, and to
gradually increase his learning of English.
Pablo enjoys watching videos and participating in outdoor activities with his family. Most of the time the movies he watches have Spanish subtitles, and he reports that this helps him understand the plot. Although he can ask his wife about the English, he says he chooses not to. She knows a lot of English, but they never speak English to each other. Even at family gatherings with his wife's relatives, Pablo does not speak English at all. He feels uncomfortable.
He has traveled to several parts of the United States with his wife, and sometimes on his own. When Pablo and his wife visited relatives in the States, he said that she forgot his limited grasp of English, and he had to survive on his own, driving around over highways and ordering food at fast-food restaurants. His brothers-in-law assumed he could take care of himself, he reported, and left him on his own. He laughed and said he confused the attendants, but in the end, he managed to order and eat.
Among his hobbies are baseball and listening to Latin salsa music. He does not listen to much music in English, although his wife manages to play her favorite tapes while she does the housecleaning on Saturdays when Pablo is not home. When Pablo is free in the evenings, he usually attends municipal assembly meetings at the town city hall.
In his freshman year, Pablo left college to join the National Guard; his reason for doing so was that he wanted a job. In the army, there is a language school for recruits to learn English. It is an intense three-month program that includes direct teaching in English as well as laboratory work using headphones and recordings. First, he had to take an entrance exam on which he did well by passing 10 of the 15 parts. As he reported, his math ability helped him because he was able to work out the math problems. Pablo feels he learned more English in this period than during twelve years of formal schooling because it was an immersion experience in which everything was spoken in English. He recalled during an interview session that he needed a pass to go home, and he had to ask a lieutenant in English. To his surprise, he had actually communicated to this officer what he needed and was understood. Pablo said this experience exposed him to different dialects and variations of English from people of different regions, and it was very helpful to him in his English-learning process.
After this experience in the army, Pablo returned
to college. He is enrolled in the business administration program and wants
to specialize in economics as a preparation for law school. He says that
his parents wanted him to go to medical school, but Pablo knows what he
wants and has decided on law. He is a transfer student from a state college
in this central area. Although he had attempted some basic English courses
at a highereducation institution and at the language institute in the service,
he reported that he began taking English courses again at the Colinas campus.
In the first and second grades, learning English
was all right. We sang lots of songs and had fun playing games. I recall
the teacher standing in the front of the room repeating some new words
to us. In the lower grades, students liked English because teachers were
active and didn't fall into routines typical of the later classes I took.
My first- and second-grade teachers were lively, and the English classes
were really interesting, but then things changed. When I got to fourth
grade, I didn't like Spanish or English. I was more interested in math,
science, and history, and I dedicated more time to those subjects.
I guess it all changed when I was taken out of the high-achievers' group. I started school when I was only four and a half years old, and the teachers and my sisters thought the competition in this group was too hard for me. Imagine, all my friends since kindergarten were in this group; we had always been together. I felt terrible when they changed me, but the following year, in the fifth grade, I was put back in the group again. I continued with this group through sixth grade. That following year, I had another problem with the English teacher.
I remember the classroom: The chairs were arranged
in a way that the room looked divided into two sections with a space in
the center. I would always sit in the front rows, but not even sitting
in the front row helped me understand the English class. This teacher knew
my sister, and she would pick on me.
one day she told me, "You don't know anything." She humiliated me in front of everybody. She further insulted me when she said I had good grades because my sister was a teacher in this school. I felt so hurt and depressed because it wasn't true. I had worked for my grades; they had nothing to do with family influences. I got a "D" in English that year, and I promised myself I was going to show her who I was.
So in seventh grade I had a challenge. I thought that school was going to be harder then because in junior high school I had to adapt to new teachers and new teaching styles, but it didn't turn out that way. I had a great teacher that year. In class, we used books that were similar in sequence to the ones we had used before, so that was familiar. What really helped me was the way the teacher gave the class. She did lots of things that were interesting. Her variety of techniques made the class relevant to our everyday lives. I remember we talked about cultural things like typical foods and cockfights. once the teacher asked me to bring in a coconut to help exhibit different desserts in our classroom. When we had to practice dialogues in class, she adapted them to our interests, experiences, and things. that were familiar to us. That year I got an "A" in English.
The first thing I did was go and show that sixth-grade teacher my grade. I told her there was nothing wrong with me as a student. The problem was with her as a teacher. I understood she was qualified to teach English, because if not, she wouldn't have been there. But she didn't get through to the students, and the way she tried to challenge me was wrong. I knew I had the ability to learn English. I did not expect her to answer me. I just wanted her to know how I felt.
The following year I went to the eighth grade. Again, I was afraid of who the teacher might be. The year before, I had asked my brother, who taught in the same school, and he told me the teacher was nice and easygoing. This time I hadn't asked anybody for references. When the new eighth?grade teacher presented herself, she looked like she had a strong character; and as she went on with her teaching, she was great. She would use a variety of teaching techniques. Sometimes we would sing songs. I thought to myself that we weren't babies anymore like we were in elementary school, but she selected good songs. She also combined a lot of activities with sports. It was her teaching style that made the class interesting. I got a "B" as a final grade that year.
In the ninth grade, I had another problem. I finished
the year with a 3.85 general point average, and I received a medal from
the Spanish teacher at my graduation. I still have a photo of me receiving
this recognition, but the rest of the teachers didn't give me anything.
From that day on, I started to lose respect for the grading system. I felt
there were students who knew less than I did and who copied on the tests.
I stopped believing in the grading system because it didn't reflect the
student I knew I was.
Things didn't change much when I got to high school. I had three different English teachers: The first one didn't teach me anything I didn't already know. She would present a series of exercises from a book and ask me to read, but her pronunciation was worse than mine. My girlfriend had just arrived from the United States, and she would correct the teacher's mispronunciations. She would tell the teacher that a given word wasn't pronounced the way she had said it, and because of the tension this produced, they didn't get along. In order for me to pass in this class, I had to do special assignments on the side. I did them on my own because I knew the teacher would think my girlfriend was helping me.
In this class, I had a group of buddies. We had been together since the first grade. Some of my friends liked music from the States. One of them always put on earphones and listened to tapes. The rest of us would play basketball, softball, and all sorts of games. We were always together, so I wasn't afraid of making a mistake in my English class because they made mistakes, too. Nobody ridiculed anybody else, because we'd never know if we were going to be next.
When my future wife was around, I was always quiet.
I knew she had a good command of English, so I would sit next to her in
class and she would explain the exercises to me. She tutored me and my
friends, but especially me.
The following year I had a great teacher. I've always been interested in the military, and this teacher was a veteran. He used a strict style in our English class. Sometimes I would argue with him in Spanish about things related to the class, and he would answer in English. The class was always taught in English from the beginning to the end.
Then in my senior year, I had joined a Bible study group, and I became very close to my English teacher, who liked to discuss different passages with me. I took the Bible to class with me, and she and I would talk while the rest of the class did the work. one day the English teacher caught me, and she said if I didn't do the work, I was going to fail. But I knew my girlfriend would help me, and I felt confident I could do the work.
Later on, my wife and I entered college. I was only 17 at the time. I recall my first college English professor: She was Indonesian, and I couldn't understand a thing she said in English. I tried to withdraw from the class, but she told me not to, that I was doing well in her course. Nevertheless, I didn't think so. I couldn't understand her, and the tests were completely different from what she taught in the class. We were both new in college, she in her first year of teaching and me in my first semester. I stayed in the course and got a "C." The second semester I had her again. This course was more advanced. I had to apply knowledge from the previous semester, and I couldn't. She didn't want me to withdraw, but I made up my mind to do so. I never went back, and I got an "F" in the course. Then, I tried repeating the same course with another professor who was Irish. He was also teaching an advanced English course that my wife was taking. I felt terrible because he knew who my wife was and that she spoke English, whereas I didn't know anything about conversational English. That's when I decided to drop out of college and join the army.
I had to take the entrance exam twice to get into
the army. However, I knew that if it was the same test, I was going to
automatically score higher the second time. Well, I passed it, and this
was the most rewarding experience in my life. The English that I know now
I learned in the three months I was in the English language school. The
technique they used was first to help us acquire a vocabulary. I had to
memorize vocabulary and use it according to the situation in which I needed
to communicate. Finally, I had to do some discovering on my own. You see,
in school everything is given to you. The vocabulary was already defined,
whereas in the army school I had to use an English-Spanish dictionary with
lots of words and synonyms to look up the word I needed. This helped me
enrich my vocabulary and think.
Furthermore, I had to make an effort to listen carefully to what people were saying in English so I could understand. Everything was spoken in English, and if we were caught speaking Spanish by one of the officers, we would get punished and have to do push-ups. It was at this language school that I became aware that I could learn English.
After this experience, I started to work in a vocational school in my home district as an assistant teacher and decided to return to college. Though I could have gone back to the state college I had attended, I opted for the Colinas campus, which is closest. When I spoke to the advisors, they didn't accept many of the courses I had taken, so I started with the basic English course again. It didn't matter because I was very determined to achieve the goals I had set for myself. I have a different mind-set now. I want to finish my degree in economics and study law. As a lawyer, I'm going to have to deal with property titles, and I feel the combination of economics and math is going to be helpful.
Although in college-level English courses, the situations
and the textbooks are different, I understand the basic things and I can
answer the questions. When I'm home, I sit alone and do the exercises.
If I have a question, I ask my wife about the possible alternatives I can
choose from, and she helps me eliminate the choices by asking me which
one I consider correct. The other day I was writing in my class journal
and I needed to use a verb, but I didn't know if it needed an "s" or not,
so I consulted my wife. It is like having a personal tutor at home.
English in Pablo's Life Now
I consider English as important as Spanish. In fact,
any second language we choose to learn for our personal enrichment is important.
In Puerto Rico, the law that was approved making
English an official language did not take into account the differences with Spanish. I understand that Spanish is our vernacular language because we use it daily as the most effective means of communication and, in addition, because of our cultural and social makeup. If I tried to speak English, the length of time it would take me to put a sentence together correctly would be too long, and in the end, I might not get it correct anyway.
Nevertheless, I definitely believe that, as educated persons, we need to grow continuously and enrich ourselves with English. I don't underestimate the importance English has, but English is a second language in Puerto Rico, not an official one. I have relatives in the States who come to visit me and it would be easier to communicate with them in English, but other than that, I see no immediate need for English to be an official language.
In fact, I think that in some ways it may be harmful to use English as an official language in Puerto Rico. For example, and I hope it doesn't happen, what if a judge decided to conduct a court hearing in English. If English and Spanish were both official languages, they could be used interchangeably. This process would be a handicap for me. I wouldn't understand the judge or the lawyers since there are so many different legal terms that I wouldn't know. Not knowing basic words and sentence structures would affect our communication.
Another problem might arise in worker-employer relations.
I feel that although the majority of the companies in Puerto Rico
are English-speaking, the information should be handed down in Spanish. There would then be more effective communication between union leaders and employers.
However, I think that at the higher managerial levels, English can be used among executives. It's so contradictory. If American companies obtain benefits and incentives from Puerto Rico, why should we have to adapt to them, even though they are the major source of employment? Besides, the 936 law on the economy is in jeopardy right now, and many American companies might leave the island, so why make English an official language?
The situation we are confronting in Puerto Rico makes me think of the future of my family and children as well as my own. My responsibility in the future is to set an example for my son. I know that if I tell him English is important for him, I have to do something that he can look up to. In my future career, I will be entering a very wide market. Any small local business transaction will not be a problem for me because I can do it in -Spanish. However, if my expectations are to enter into bigger business deals, I would have to do those in the United States; and if I don't know English, it doesn't matter how much I know about business and economics, I'll be limited.
Now I have dared to learn English a little more, and I've put more interest into it. I'm not as scared of English anymore. I know I can learn it, and I've received positive feedback from my college professors lately. I am an adult now, and I am more open to learning English than I was before. I know the bogeyman ["el cuco"] doesn't exist. This is something that I have to face. I think that with this mentality, I'll get ready for the future. I'm going to tell my son that it's not an impossible task. It really isn't that difficult, although I still don't speak English that well.
I think the educational system of Puerto Rico has to change in order for students to learn English. The Department of Education should provide more conversational English classes. Teaching them conversational English is a great alternative. It's one of the best ways of learning English because you have to adapt your ear and you can enrich your vocabulary. By speaking, you can improve your pronunciation. Unless the Department of Education provides the public schools with conversational classes, students are not going to learn English. Furthermore, these students need English laboratories where they can practice listening and pronunciation.
Don't misunderstand me. The public-school system
isn't bad. I'm a product of it. But the world is evolving, and some drastic
changes have to be made if we want our children to learn English.
Diana came up to me and said that she was interested in participating in the research study I had talked to our class about. We scheduled an initial interview session and met in the school cafeteria at about 11:30 a.m. Diana did not have much free time at school because she had a family to care for; nevertheless, she was prompt for our meeting. Diana and I entered the cafeteria looking for a table in which we could sit. I bought some coffee for us, and we began talking.
Diana is a short, brown-haired woman of about 40.
She was a returning adult who had been out of school for 22 years. She
was educated in the public schools of Las Flores and after all this time
decided to study what she had always liked--secretarial science. Although
most of her brothers and sisters do not understand why she is studying
at this stage of her life and say they find it ridiculous, she disagrees
with them and is determined to pursue a career. She said that she had found
all of the support she needs in her husband and sons, and she knows she
can count on them. In our preliminary interview, we talked about her experiences
learning English and how unrewarding they had been for her in her school
days. Diana asserted that the teaching of English in Puerto Rico is poor.
She said she feels confused that some people do not understand that English
is good for them and that they should not resist it. She reported that
she believes that many Puerto Rican people feel and say that they are being
"Americanized" by force. In her view, this is incomprehensible because
Puerto Ricans do not have to feel hostility. Her views were interesting
to me, and I decided to include her as one of the female participants.
Diana then accepted my invitation to our first interview.
When Diana came to the office, I invited her to go out so we could find a quiet and peaceful place to talk, but she insisted that it was a cold and drizzly morning and that we should stay in the office. She said the office did not make her feel uncomfortable at all. I did not sit behind the desk; instead, I sat next to her and placed the tape recorder on the desk, trying to provide a more relaxed environment. We talked about the details of the consent form that she was asked to sign, and she commented that it was a very formal process for a topic that she considered was not personal. I explained to her that New York University requires the participant's permission for these types of studies. She carefully read the form and signed it. There was someone else she had consulted about this study--her husband. She mentioned incidentally to me that her husband was enthusiastic about her participation in the study, too.
After two weeks, Diana showed up as we had scheduled for our second interview. Again, I invited her for a walk with my recorder in my hand, but she insisted that we stay in the office. Her interviews were getting a little harder to conduct because she said she had been out of school for so long that she hardly remembered any details. Most of the time, she made general statements about her teaching and learning, and only alluded a few times to her personal experiences. Our third interview was held three weeks later. Although Diana said these interviews were not personal, I feel she maintained her distance. This made my follow-up probes difficult in the last interview session. All in all, we went through three rounds of interviews during the same semester.
Diana is married and has two boys, aged 21 and 14.
After she married, she left for the United States but did not work outside
the home. During the two years she lived in the States, she took care of
her baby while her husband worked as an electrical technician. Diana's
husband had served in the army and knew enough English to survive on the
At present, Diana stays home much of the time taking care of her family. She likes to read, goes to church, and studies full time. Diana has been out of school for 22 years. Last semester was her first time back after all those years; and, as she reported, she had to adapt all over again.
All of this adjustment has not changed her view of English. Diana is very interested in the English language and considers it a way to grow, especially in relation to the job market. She is a secretarial major; and although she went to the States after her marriage, she exposed herself very little to the English language and the outside world. Basically, she picked up some English from radio and television programs.
At home, English use is limited in the family. Although
Diana's husband speaks some English, he never practices with her. She recalled
that once when they were dating, she pronounced the word "somebody," and
her husband-to-be laughed at her because she mispronounced it. After that,
she reported, she never spoke English to him again. They had cable television
for a while, but they felt compelled to discontinue it because neither
of the boys paid attention to the English programming. At times, her sons
listen to rock music, but not frequently. However, both Diana and her husband
enjoy reading books in English once in a while. Her favorites are science-fiction
novels. She reported that reading in English is fun and also a learning
experience. She looks up any words she does not know in the dictionary
immediately, and she tries to integrate these words into her English vocabulary
repertoire. Other than this type of activity, the family does not use English,
except for some schoolwork.
Diana said her current experience with English was rewarding, and she would like to take additional conversational English courses, although no one in her community speaks it. She completed her second basic course with a "B" and once in a while drops by to ask for help with English homework.
I'm 41 years old and have lived in Las Flores most
of my life, except for two years I lived in the United States. I come from
a family of eight brothers and sisters. My father died when I was young,
and my mother raised us by herself. Only two members of my family have
studied, and they have become professionals.
My husband and I are cousins, and our courtship was not an easy one. Coming from a traditional Puerto Rican family, my mother was very strict. I couldn't go to the movies or anywhere with him, so we stayed at our home and talked a lot. After my high school graduation, we got married and left for New York City. My oldest son was born there.
After I returned from the United States and moved to Las Flores, I worked as a cashier in a supermarket for 14 years. After the supermarket went out of business, I decided to return to college to obtain a degree in secretarial science. I am not the only college student in my home: My older son, 21, is studying radiology to become a technician at a small college in the San Juan area. My younger son, 14, is still in junior high school and as yet doesn't know what he wants to pursue. I guess he'll make up his mind sooner or later.
It's funny that I can recall the concepts of my business courses in high school, which have helped me in my college learning, but I can't remember the English that I learned. I guess I was indifferent to it in the past.
One time I can remember was when I took an English class with Mrs. Lopez. She would find ways to make the class interesting. I didn't feel that the English class was forced on us. She motivated us by playing games, and she would decorate the classroom. On holidays, such as St. Valentine's Day and Halloween, she would put things on the walls that made me feel glad to be in that classroom. Most of all, she would communicate with us.
There was another teacher I remember who wasn't the same. I grew to hate the English class with her because it was completely boring. She seemed to teach English because she had to. Many times, she would walk into the classroom with a "learn-if-you-want-to" attitude. I think the majority of the teachers I had were like that. It gave me the impression that they became English teachers by chance and not because they really liked it.
Unfortunately, schools don't prepare us to speak English. I consider the teaching of English in Puerto Rico poor and ineffective. In the past, English learning was limited to isolated vocabulary. You can't learn English by using pictures and repeating something like "This is a chair." I would go home thinking that's a chair; I know it because I heard it, but how do you write it? And even worse, we weren't able to practice our pronunciation; the teachers did the talking.
Then, in the higher grades, we filled in blanks.
There was no reason to learn English and reflect on the learning or challenge
ourselves with what we had learned. I didn't find it practical either.
It was learning for a future we couldn't even imagine. Another aspect that
wasn't emphasized was reading. I don't recall ever having an assignment
in which I had to read and analyze a novel. I think reading, writing, and
speaking English are all major difficulties for Puerto Ricans.
In schools, we dedicated most of the time to grammar. We conjugated verbs, but we weren't told in which situations we were going to employ them. That's why we produce English sentences interchanging verbs from the present, past, and future.
Throughout my life, I have had to deal with English.
First, I had an experience living in New York for two years after
I got married. It was very hard for me to move around because I didn't know any English. Although I studied English in school, I wasn't taught how to speak it. Every time I had to go to the doctor for an appointment or go shopping, I would have to take
someone to translate for me. It was difficult for me to fill out forms and to make myself understood in general. After I returned
to Puerto Rico, I worked in a supermarket. There was an American woman who needed assistance with her shopping because she didn't speak any Spanish. The owner of the store knew I had been in the United-States and sent her over to me. I would ask her to please speak slowly to me so I could understand, and we were able to communicate with each other. You know, the problem with some people is that they go so fast. Somehow or other, I never thought I would have to use English, but it's always a part of our lives.
English in Diana's Life Now
After I graduated from high school, I immediately
got married and dedicated my life to raising my children. It wasn't
until I lost my job in the supermarket and became unemployed that I realized how unprepared I was to find another job. The work force was very competitive; and although I had experience as a cashier at a supermarket, I knew the only available job I could apply for was as a factory worker. But I knew I had more potential than to sit at a sewing machine all day long. That's when I decided to return to school and get an associate degree in secretarial science.
My brothers and sisters couldn't understand why I went back to school after 22 years. They thought I was overworking myself; but even if I had to study long hours to pass 'a test, I felt satisfied because it was my dream. I'm living a beautiful part of my life that I left behind. I didn't have the kind of courtship with my husband?to?be like the college girls have nowadays. Nevertheless, I feel young when I see my husband waiting for me at the campus parking lot. After all these years, I am doing things that I didn't have the opportunity to do before.
Last semester in college I took remedial math, Spanish,
and English. I felt strange at the beginning because things have changed
so much after 22 years--for example, taking classes with young people.
I felt I was at a disadvantage because students who just came out of high
school had certain knowledge I didn't have. In math class, I felt lost.
I hadn't taken algebra or geometry when I studied in high school, so it
was difficult for me. Now English isn't fearful to me; math is. I don't
feel frightened of the English class because I had some experiences when
I was in New York. I got an "A" in remedial English, and I've already taken
a test in this course and I also got an "A." I find it easy. I think what
has also helped me in English is that the class is mainly composed of adults.
We don't feel afraid of saying things wrong or mispronouncing. We try to
participate and learn. I think adults should all be placed in the same
groups because we can all study together and help one another.
At present, I feel motivated to learn English because I want to become a secretary, and I know bilingual applicants will have preference for positions. I know that bilingual secretaries get the highest paying jobs. I want to prepare myself even if I don't use English all the time. I want to be able to use it and be successful in my future employment.
However, at home we don't use much English. My husband
learned a little English and can speak it, but my sons are both different
about English. One of them is interested, and the other isn't. My younger
son is taking English in junior high school. Schools nowadays are doing
a better job of teaching English than when I was in school. Sometimes I
look at my son's English notebook, and we are both learning the same things.
We help each other with assignments. Sometimes he and I practice a couple
of words. The other day, when he entered the house, I asked him, "Where
were you?" and he answered promptly, "At Regina's house." I asked him,
"What did I say to you?" And he laughed and replied, "What's the matter
with you? I know what
you asked." I'm glad my younger son is interested in learning English. We both would like to practice it with other people, but no one is interested in using it. Everybody has this antipathy against English.
Unfortunately, my older son doesn't like English. He isn't interested at all. Every once in a while I tell him he should start taking a conversational English course because he wants to became a radiology technician and he is going to need it. But he doesn't appreciate the importance I attach to it. I think because he hasn't had any experiences in which he needs English, he's indifferent to it. I can't understand how he is participating in a biology class and using an English textbook. I wish that both of my sons were conscious of the importance English has today; and I hope as they grow up and mature, they will see things differently.
I'm totally in favor of the law that made both English
and Spanish official languages. I know some people feel that English has
been forced on us in school and that there's a certain repugnance toward
English. I've seen people looking at others over their shoulders when they
heard them speak English because they lived in the United States for a
while. They feel that such people are conceited. I don't know if this has
happened to you since you are an English-speaker. But I sense that some
people feel that English has been imposed on them from childhood onward,
and they just continue to reject English and English-speakers.
It seems that people feel that they are being Americanized by force.
However, we don't have to feel hostile. Politics
are influencing the language issue, and this is incorrect, in my opinion.
We should put all this aside. I know if anybody heard me saying this, they
would think I'm selling out my country ["vende patria"], or something like
that, but probably they haven't had the experience of living in a country
where you can't communicate for basic needs. When you have had an experience
of this sort in your own flesh and blood, then you become aware. If I had
known English when I was in the States, I wouldn't have had such a hard
time. I most likely would have looked for a job, but I was stuck because
I was conscious I didn't know how to get by in that world. I feel English
is very important, so why not make it an official language?
After class one evening, Maria came to me and asked
for an interview appointment. She also asked if I had read an article in
the newspaper about a college English professor's defense of the Spanish
language in Puerto Rico and wanted my opinion. I thought for a moment and
answered I had not read it as yet. She looked at me blankly, and I assume
she was surprised. But I was intrigued by her question and wanted to put
myself in her place to understand how she felt about this article and the
In class, Maria appeared eager to answer and participate. She spoke fairly accurately, with a slight accent. She explained to the class during our first session that she had learned some English in New York, where she lived for a while.
Maria is 37 years old. Her red hair and freckles add a flair to her personality. She is of medium height and slender. Maria is the oldest of five children. Her mother went to the United States with her family and lived there for six years. From this experience, all of her brothers became fluent in English. One of them became a bilingual teacher in history and art at a school in New York; another one joined the navy. Maria, however, stayed only a year.
A few years later Maria went to California with her daughters and lived there for another year. She has been close to the continental U.S. culture and has a positive attitude about Puerto Rico becoming a state.
Maria lives in Colinas with her children. She has
three daughters, aged 17, 15, and seven, and a three?month?old boy. Last
semester her second husband abandoned her, and she was constantly worried
about child care. While she was in college, her 15?year?old daughter took
care of the baby because the oldest . was in a local night school finishing
her general studies. I was amazed at Maria's stamina for studying during
the evenings; nevertheless, she is typical of returning adults at Colinas
with all the adjustments they have to make to be able to study.
A succession of difficult personal circumstances appears to have shaken her confidence. She wanted to work as a medical records technician, but the Colinas campus does not offer this major. Her second option was to study in the business administration program, but she had not been successful in remedial math and had dropped the following math course. For this reason, she was hesitant about entering the business program and was very undecided. After our third interview, I found out that Maria had dropped out of college and enrolled in a technical school to become a hairdresser. This did not surprise me, because Maria needed immediate economic support to take care of her family. She was currently living on government assistance.
Maria had a very tight schedule and was taking only six credits in order to get home early; however, she was eager to go for her interviews on her night off from classes. At some of these sessions, I was able to meet two of her daughters who waited for her. As she reported, they have all picked up the English language, even the little one, who had never been to school.
I learned very little English in school. I don't know, I guess it was because I didn't learn how to speak English. When I went to New York, I had studied English in Puerto Rico, but I didn't know a thing. I had to listen carefully to people and watch plenty of television. My personal opinion is that here in Puerto Rico they don't teach you how to communicate, which is one of the most important aspects for me: pronouncing correctly and communicating. All they taught us here were verbs and things like that; but the most important facet is speaking, and I never heard teachers speak to us in class. Maybe they didn't know how to pronounce the words.
Looking back at my elementary school experience,
I can recall that the teaching technique wasn't effective. It mostly
consisted of looking at pictures, and we didn't even practice whole sentences. It was just the isolated word. The teacher
would say "pencil," and we would repeat it, but we never wrote it down or practiced the pronunciation individually. Most of the
time we just pointed to things. When the teacher taught us "water," she would tell us it was "agua," but we never learned
how to ask for it--for example, "Give me some water." I mean, if I tell an American just "water," I'm not doing anything. People
speak in sentences. I think this was basically the problem; we weren't taught how to produce communication. If the
communication aspect is not emphasized, we will not learn how to put sentences and questions together. The teachers taught us to point at things, not to speak English.
Then, in junior high school and high school, we did
more writing. There were exercises in books, and we had to fill in blanks;
but again, speaking wasn't practiced. In other words, students come out
of school and can't speak because they have been taught to perform on written
In the past, I had never obtained more than a "C" in English. I didn't put much effort into the class, but that doesn't mean I have never liked it. But things have changed, and right now I'm doing fine in English. As a matter of fact, it's the class in which I'm doing the best. I feel I know a little more than the rest of the students. I've observed in class that some students don't like English. They don't know they are going to need it. Not knowing English is like being stuck in the same place. Many students are frightened of English and hate it. Take Juan, for example; although he has changed, he's had a hard time. Last semester he was scared of speaking English. He would do his written work, but he never spoke a word of English in class. Now I see he answers and is trying to compete with the others. He even had a good grade on his first test.
I spoke to him a couple of times and told him that if he was going to study accounting, he was going to need a lot of English because the majority of the companies on the island are American. I warned him that at job interviews, the first thing employers ask you is if you are bilingual. You might get a job, I told him, but others who know English will be preferred.
As I look back, I have dealt with many fears; and I am trying to motivate others to understand the importance of English. I don't want to view English as a requirement in college; I want to learn it because it's useful.
There is one thing that worries me about college
English classes. Sometimes there are students in the class that know
some English and they complain that the course is too easy. I think it's important that students feel challenged. I know a couple of students who are taking English and need more advanced material. Furthermore, there are students who return from the United States and know more English than Spanish. Placement is important for success and challenge in language learning.
When my brother came back from the navy, the Department of Education of Hillside offered him a job to teach English in a junior high school. He knew how to speak English, but he hadn't studied to be a teacher and knew nothing about teaching. But they wanted him to stay and work anyway. My brother could have done a great job, but he knew he wasn't prepared for that. The department has to be careful to hire personnel who are qualified and prepared. Besides, teachers are the main motivators of students, and we need teachers who are enthusiastic about the English language and culture and pass on this attitude to the students.
I try to keep up a positive attitude about English
at home. My daughters understand English and speak it at home. I feel that
if they learned it in the United States, they should practice it. I'm careful
that my daughters watch television in English, see video movies, and listen
to English music on the radio. This is the way children can learn English.
My brother sent my son a radio cassette player and storybooks. When I put
on the tapes for my youngest daughter, she listens and understands as she
follows the picture book.
This daughter was in the United States for a year and learned English. I hope she hasn't forgotten it, because I observe her listening to those cassettes and I think she comprehends. In California, she went to prekindergarten and knew more English than Spanish in only a year. When I first took her to school, the teacher told me it was going to be impossible for my daughter to do well because no one there knew Spanish. However, the teacher used a technique of saying and touching things simultaneously, and my daughter quickly picked up the language. I would ask her what the teacher had taught her, and she demonstrated to me how she put her lunch box in her cabinet first thing in the morning. The teacher would say, "Let's go to your cabinet and put your lunch box there. This is your cabinet." And my daughter learned it. She continued learning all sorts of things and understood everything. When I went back to talk to the teacher, she told me she was amazed that in two months my daughter was speaking English.
When I took Ana and Elba to school in California, they were traumatized. Elba, the oldest, had left Puerto Rico in her junior year of high school, and she practically didn't know any English. You know how the teaching of English is here in Puerto Rico! It was such a drastic change for her, because all her classes were in English. Sometimes she would tell me, "Mommy, I can't do it," but I insisted that she had to learn English. I reminded her that when I went to the United States for the first time, I didn't know English and felt that I was a nobody. "You feel you are a nobody because you don't understand English.' I told her the more you integrate with the Americans, the better it will be for you. "So lose the fear," I told her. "That's when you are ready to learn." And the girls did; they learned to speak English.
I knew what I was talking about. I hadn't gone to school in the United States, and I had a hard time. I learned some English by communicating for daily needs; but in the beginning, it was devastating. I couldn't even ask for coffee at a restaurant. I pronounced things wrong and had to wait for the Americans to correct me. They would look at me strangely because they didn't understand me; and then they told me how to pronounce the words correctly. I would recall the new pronunciation by repeating it, and that's how I learned English.
English in Maria's Life Now
Knowing English is so important in Puerto Rico. I
am totally in agreement with the new law making English an official language.
I don't criticize those who don't agree, but I believe Puerto Ricans should
be educated about this law. People think this law is imposing another language
on them, but I don't think this way. on the contrary, it's necessary. Nowadays,
I see English as necessary as food and clothing. I feel that people who
want to be well educated should think about learning both languages. They
should learn to speak, read, and write English well. In fact, they should
learn as many languages as possible.
I don't see English as the language of only the United States; it's a universal language because people in all countries speak and communicate in English. You see, the United States does business with so many countries that it has become the number one worldwide language.
The other day I read an article in the newspaper that was striking to me. An English professor said she didn't agree with the English law. I was shocked because an English teacher should understand this law better than the general public. ?I was worried about that professor's opinion because English is an essential language for all Puerto Ricans. I mean, if all Puerto Ricans were against the law, then it would make sense; but it's voluntary. I don't think it's an imposition. You learn it if you want to; and if you don't want to, you don't. It's like coming to the university: You learn if you want to. That's why I was so shocked by the article. I guess this professor didn't like the idea of the English law. But I think someone who has studied and who teaches English should defend it. I mean, I'm not going to put Spanish down because of the law, but I don't feel it's absurd to learn English, especially when having a solid and firm knowledge base is a necessity. We don't need English to please the Americans; English is a universal language.
I definitely want to learn English, and I want my
children to learn it, too. I am conscious that we are going to need it
someday soon. Here in Puerto Rico, jobs are very competitive, and most
of them require bilingual ability. I've checked the newspaper at various
times, and there are lots of jobs that solicit English-speaking applicants.
In addition, if I want to travel to the United States in the summer, I'm
going to need English as soon as I get to the airports in Puerto Rico and
in the United States.
Even at home, I'm going to use English because I have to help my children with their English homework. You know, sometimes there are English teachers who are unprepared; and if my children get one of these teachers, I will have to help them. The contrary may also be true: My children may have a knowledgeable teacher, but I will also have to give them some guidance. Furthermore, I want my children to continue learning English, especially my son, who will need it as he grows up. In reality, the future is closer than we think.
Someday we might have to go back to live in the United States. I had to drop out of college because I did not have the time to study. I need a short vocational career where I can start making money as soon as possible. I'm learning how to become a hairdresser now. But if the competition is too strong, I'll have to leave to go to the United States. I know some English, and I know I can get around. This is an option I have. My children can go to school, and they can have a lot of opportunities because they know English. English is important for everybody nowadays.
The fifth participant in this study, Jose, demonstrated proficiency in English through class participation, and most importantly, he demonstrated that he was not afraid to speak English. Time and again he responded in class and did not show any fear. When all of us had made our introductions and talked a little about ourselves on the first day of class, Jose told his classmates about an experience he had with English that was helpful in his learning. His openness and the assertive way he spoke about himself and others were qualities that impressed me.
After I announced to the class that I was interested in talking to students in this evening course about their experiences with English for the present study, Jose asked me all sorts of questions about the study and again mentioned he had experiences he wanted to talk to me about. I was intrigued and curious about Jose, and as a result, we conducted four interview sessions. He was always on time for these and eager to participate, although he had to make special arrangements at his place of work. I consider his inclusion in the study important because he is part of the younger returning adult population of the Colinas campus, and through his accounts, he reveals many things about the barriers he thinks most Puerto Rican students experience when learning English.
Jose is a 20-year-old returning college student, born and raised in Colinas. His father and he have the same first and last names, something he is proud of. He feels he was very well raised by his parents. He says that they taught him to be an honest person, and they did a good job. He was educated in public schools and graduated with a high average. According to him, the only problem he had in school was conduct. He said that he liked to talk and considers himself a hyperactive person. He had a girlfriend and spent time with her in the not-so-visible corners of the hallways, according to him.
During his senior year in high school, his girlfriend became pregnant, and they got married. They have a two-year-old son and live with Jose's parents and four other brothers and sisters, who are all younger than he is. His father has land and cultivates crops while his mother takes care of the home.
José has two jobs. During the week, he works at a local supermarket; on weekends, he repairs car engines. The rest of the time he attends night school to become an X-ray technician. Later on, he would like to get a bachelor's degree, but first he needs a stable job where he can make more money.
In his free time, Jose does many things. Sometimes,
he likes to travel and go sightseeing with no particular destination in
mind. He enjoys sitting on the beach with a drink, and eating fish and
shrimp at restaurants along the southeastern coast. On Saturday nights,
he likes to go out and talk to his friends. Talking, as Jose says, is his
Please don't misunderstand me, but I have been a very successful student throughout my life with little effort. Although my mother always warned me to develop good study habits, I have with ease been an outstanding student. In elementary school I had straight "As". Once I got a "B" in my English class halfway through the semester because of my conduct. I tend to be a little hyperactive and talk a lot, but I worked on my behavior and got an "A" again.
English has always interested me. It's a subject
I work at like any other one. I just put a lot of effort into it and I
learn easily. I scored approximately 500 on the College Board Entrance
Exam in English because I was tired. The English part was offered late
in the afternoon; and although I tried to read the beginning of the passages
rapidly in order to answer the multiple?choice questions, I didn't score
as high as I wanted to. I decided to repeat that part of the test and scored
close to 3100?points on the overall test, which is not bad in relation
to my class. I think I did well. Lots of my friends just guessed on the
English part. That is part of the general attitude they have. I remember
coming out of an English test in high school and some of my friends' remarks
were, "I don't understand that English stuff." But I really think it has
something more to do with not studying in general. I've been successful
in English because I pay attention, try, and like it.
In elementary school, I recall the first time I had ever gotten a "B" in English. It was in the fifth grade. I was used to always getting an "A," and when I got that "B," I got frustrated to a certain point. And I said to myself, "What went wrong?" I had to improve my conduct because I was hyperactive and talked a lot in class. The teacher didn't like that. so I improved my conduct and worked for an "A" with that teacher the following semester. In my sixth?grade graduation, I was a high honor student again, with a 3.85 average, or something like that.
Then I went on to intermediate school where, thanks to the Lord, I did a good job. I was always a good student, not because I had very good study habits, and not because my parents didn't influence me to do the right things. I remember my mother talking to me about that. But I was used to studying for a test only a couple of days in advance. However, I have always been a student who likes to listen and pay attention in class. And even more, if the class is in another language, I put a lot of effort to understand.
In high school, I enjoyed my English class, too. I always participated and tried to do well in all my subjects. In my English class, I liked working in small groups and making a lot of speeches. The teacher would have us make up a speech and give it in front of the class. The other students didn't like it, but I loved it.
As a matter of fact, I was selected by my high school
to represent my class in the Presidential Classroom student exchange
in Washington, DC. This experience changed my life. First, I had never left the island of Puerto Rico, so this trip gave me a wider perspective on American culture. I learned that Americans are hospitable and strive to be punctual. While I was in Washington, they treated me like one of them. Also, separation from my family was a growth experience for me. I was on my own; and as the days went by, I made a lot of friends. Furthermore, I was able to communicate in English.
I had a roommate, Kevin, from Connecticut, with whom I was able to talk and share. one day he and I went to a restaurant and asked for an iced tea and a hamburger. I thought the tea had some sugar and lemon in it; but to my surprise, it was completely flat and I couldn't drink it. Kevin was nice enough to give me his orange juice and drank my tea. We got along really well. While I was in Washington, I helped some other roommates at the hotel with a problem. You see, some students in the next room were making a lot of noise in the evenings, and we couldn't get a good night's sleep. I called the noisemakers on the phone and pretended to be a security guard. That scared them, and my roommates thanked me.
Another experience I had of which I felt proud was when I bargained with a street vendor for a gold chain. I actually talked a man into selling it to me for six dollars. I later found out that the chain would eventually turn green. Anyhow, being able to speak in English and sticking up for myself were important to me. I heard some of my friends talking and saying, "Did you see Jose? He was talking to that man." It made me feel proud of myself.
Nevertheless, the most rewarding moment for me came during our last exchange meeting when another student made up the acronym "EWJ," which meant "Everyone wants Jose," and spread this among the whole group. I tried to make as many friends as I could. This experience in Washington changed my life. When I got back from the trip, I was able to retell my experience to the following year's candidates, and I spoke English for an hour. I was applauded and congratulated, even by a bilingual student. Can you imagine? So you see, I feel English isn't an impossible language to learn.
English in Jose's Life Now
After high school graduation, I applied to a state university in the metropolitan area. I was doing well on my tests and getting high grades, but I had a car accident and hurt my leg. It was incredible. Just five minutes after I was on the road, a truck hit me. Luckily, I escaped with only a leg injury. But after that, I lost interest in school and dropped out. A semester later, I became interested again when I heard some friends at the supermarket talk about their school experiences. It convinced me that working and studying weren't so hard to do. That's when I decided to enter Colinas College.
I'm now in my second English course, which has to do with reading, and
I'm amazed that students can't summarize a story in
their own words. They need to try to let go of that paper and just do it. I tried to give the students a message in class that English isn't that hard. As a group, we created our own stories and combined them into a booklet. For its cover, I suggested the title "English Is Not Impossible to Learn." I really feel that some students have a negative attitude toward English, and this creates a barrier. There are several other things that I feel are affecting students--for example, the way English is viewed in their homes. In my home, my parents never mentioned anything negative about English. On the contrary, we watch cable television, and there is always some English reading material around. In fact, some people from the community come to my father seeking help to interpret letters and other mail in English.
I admit that I myself still need more practice speaking English. After high school graduation, I was thinking of joining the army, but I talked myself out of it because I was afraid I didn't know enough English to survive the basic training. I feel we Puerto Ricans have lost out on many opportunities because of our English limitations.
That's why I agree with Puerto Rico's existing language
policy act. I feel it was the right thing to do and that Spanish and English
should have both been official languages long ago. If we want to progress
in our careers, jobs, and other facets of life, we need English and we
have to "break the barrier" that has always existed between Spanish and
English. The attitude that we
communicate in Spanish and, therefore, we have no immediate need for English, is not convincing to me.
I mean, students here in Puerto Rico study English for twelve years; and if we were to select from a group of 30 students, less than half could defend themselves in English. We need to help students. It's about time.
I have plans to study and eventually live in the United States for a while. I want to learn to speak English as fluently as I speak and read Spanish. I want to be able to say as much as I want to. I want my son to learn English and take advantage of all the opportunities available in order to develop as an independent person.