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Where Chicano English Gets RespectSixth-grader Jose Villarreal reads an essay about his mother's advice to stay in school, get good grades, and go to college. Arellano asked her pupils to write about a family member's positive influence on them. (Photo by Stephanie Tavitian)

Where Chicano English Gets Respect

A teacher in an innovative LAUSD program, Guadalupe Arellano of El Sereno Middle School tells her students that their home language needs to be understood, not rejected.

By Stephanie Tavitian
LALA Reporter

This is the bridge that connects who they are to what school wants them to be. And we have to get them across that bridge.

"What can we use for placa?" says a student to her work group in Guadalupe Arellano's English class. Children at El Sereno Middle School in East Los Angeles are making a thesaurus to expand their vocabulary of standard English words.

"Identity?" says another student.

"Signature!" shouts another, smiling.

By the end of the period, the work group has also come up with "name" and "tag" to substitute the Chicano English word placa. I say "Chicano English word" because many of the 32 children in this classroom do not know that the primary Spanish meaning is "plaque." They don't necessarily speak Spanish. Rather, they are fluent in the same English variant that Arellano grew up speaking.

Within the LAUSD's Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP), a program in which Arellano and her school participate, Chicano English has the status of an English "language," one of four addressed by AEMP. The program also covers variants spoken by African Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. In training sessions, teachers such as Arellano get exposed to one or more of the variants and learn how to use that knowledge in the service of teaching standard English to students.

"This is the bridge that connects who they are to what school wants them to be. And we have to get them across that bridge," says Arellano, who's been a teacher for 10 years.

She also wants to avoid burning bridges behind students or, in other words, damaging the identities they bring with them to class. El Sereno is a historic, working-class, and now largely Latino district in East Los Angeles that so far has escaped the gentrification that swept, among other places, the nearby independent municipalities of Alhambra and South Pasadena. The kids in Arellano's class all have Mexican or Central American backgrounds.

"Kids of color and working-class kids," explains Otto Santa Ana, a linguist at UCLA, grow up speaking "an organic dialect, a language of their community." Santa Anna has an appointment in the Department of Chicana/o Studies and has written extensively on Chicano English in Los Angeles. He says "there is no linguistic problem" with students who speak any of the various non-standard English variants, which are often mistaken for broken English or for English learned as a second language. It's just that "standard English is a dialect that they acquire."

Did You Barely Call Me?

Speakers of Chicano English and other variants "maintain solidarity with those linguistic features" which "signal … home and community," according to Santa Anna. Their speech gives comfort and promotes camaraderie. It may also employ double negatives and other non-standard forms that are not often welcome at school.

Chicano English, for example, has some "lexical items" that are specific to the language, according to linguist Carmen Fought in her book Chicano English in Context. The words fool ("dude" or "guy"), kick it ("hang around"), and barely ("just recently") take on altered senses in the amiable phrase, "Hey fool, don't you wanna kick it? You barely got here." Differences in pronunciation may be noticed, for example, in the dropping of "g" from the suffix "-ing" and in intonation, so that the second syllable of "running" sounds more like "een."

Although they are two distinct groups, Arellano's students on the one hand and second-language learners of English on the other have challenges in common. Regardless of race, speakers of non-standard English have trouble expressing themselves in class and in writing, and they and their teachers often miss the plain meaning of one another's words. These kids are at a disadvantage in picking up the English needed to pass standardized tests, graduate from high school, and get good jobs. Their lower test scores may in turn affect how facilities and materials are doled out to their schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Like some less open-minded teachers, Arellano believes that her students' best chance to avoid marginalization is to learn standard English. The difference is that she envisions them mastering the English languages of both their worlds: of home and beyond home. Arellano hopes that her students will ultimately be able to switch at will between their two languages—a different problem from switching between more and less formal registers of speech—and understand when it is appropriate to do so.

In class, she is herself known to code switch. In prompting students to begin a free-writing assignment on an assigned reading, It Doesn't Have to Be This Way by Luis Rodríguez, she tacks an "s" onto a word: "How does reading material that you know happens for reals help you in school?" This usage and some others like laters are characteristic of some Chicano English speakers. Arellano also uses collaborative projects, such as the effort described above to create a "personal thesaurus" with placa and other words, to engage her students.

"They think it's fun" and "interactive," she says. "They see it as us caring.... It validates their experience."

Over the past five years, "Closing the Gap," an administrative branch in the Los Angeles Unified School District headed by Noma Lemoine, has managed AEMP and its teacher training component. The program teaches techniques including the translation and comparison of dialects, the building of personal thesauruses for words like placa and barrio, the teaching of literature that clarifies differences among dialects, and ways of attending to students' individual learning habits. (Chicano English barrio means not only "neighborhood" and "community" but also "ghetto," "projects," and "cheap housing.")

AEMP has met with some resistance within the system. With its many themes and strategies, the program asks a lot of teachers who are struggling to meet other district expectations and standards. Arellano reports that problems arise from inconsistent implementation of the program from instructor to instructor. Some LAUSD teachers, she says, may not agree with the program's premises or may have difficulty applying their training to the classroom. This can lead to problems for students in the next grade level.

Some criticism has resulted from AEMP's focus on a few targeted populations instead of anyone considered a learner of standard English. Arellano defends the program's limits, saying that Mexican American, African American, Hawaiian American, and Native American students historically have fared poorly in LAUSD and need this kind of enrichment.

The second criticism suggest that AEMP is not available enough. However, the reality is that few programs like this are implemented in school districts around the nation, even when students are clearly struggling with academic English.

"It's a framework that we lay over what we already have. The standards don't change; the outcomes don't change; it's how you approach it," says Arellano.

code switch: what bilingual speakers do when they “switch back and forth between languages (or varieties of the same language), sometimes within the same utterance." Source: S. Gross. (2006). Code switching, in K. Brown, et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (p. 508), 2nd Ed., Vol. 2. Oxford: Elsevier. (back)

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