Kids misbehave for a ton of reasons. They are hungry. They are sleepy. They are lonely. They are scared. They are overstimulated. They are jerks in general. Usually you can talk it out and figure out what is causing the problem. However, for good or ill (I personally believe good. Americans could do with a little bilingualism. Every other developed country in the world does.) classrooms usually have at least one or two English language learners that can't effectively communicate the reasoning behind a perceived misbehavior. The question can even be asked "Is this a misbehavior at all? Or is it just a cultural difference?" What happens when a misbehavior is so severe that it makes you wonder if it isn't a behavior issue, but a disability of some type - emotional, learning, etc? How do you know which one it is?
When determining the need for Special Education referrals for an English Language Learning (ELL) child, educators face three problems:
(1) Language as a culture barrier.
(2) Language as a mask for previously existing behavioral and academic problems.
(3) Language as an instigator of those same problems.
Language as a Culture Barrier
Those children whose first language assigns gender and the associated characteristics to an object have a different way of seeing those objects that may or may not interfere with their relation to them. (Harmon, 2007, pg 37) When a speaker of a gender neutral language, such as English, gives instruction in a tense that does not naturally define the object within the word itself the way romance languages do, ELL children can appear to respond slowly or not understand what is meant while they attempt to mentally reconcile the differences and apply the proper connotations.
Case in point, a lesson taught on money in the government and business has many opportunities for problems with the use of one word alone – “capital”. In Spanish the feminine “la capital” is the capital of a country, but the masculine “el capital” refers to financial matters. The definition of this word in English changes with the context of the word in a sentence or paragraph, not article of the word itself. A child that is looking for the definitive article to tell him what the word means will not be looking for context clues and will have difficulty understanding the lesson.
Considering that this problem can happen even with two people of almost exact language, it is no small wonder that it is magnified by those who do not share one. Detscher’s article presents another example demonstrating this cultural divide without actively using verbal language: when arranging a bedroom in the same certain order facing north and again facing south, an egocentric culture will see the exact same bedroom. Alternatively, a coordinate culture will see two completely different rooms as each is facing a different direction. This type of viewpoint could have significant impact on a child who is placed in an environment that not only sounds different, but is arranged differently from anything they have before experienced.
Many such cultures have a varying educational structure as well. Students from rural Mexico, for instance, may have had almost no formal instruction; even if the student has learned much about a subject, the concept of testing and a sit-down style of education may not activate or relate to prior knowledge. (Flores-Moreno, 2007, pg 1) Learning anything beyond the new language becomes a far more laborious task than the child is used to and that educators have time for. If the educator presents content in a manner consistent with the progressivism views of education (learning by hands on activities that are later analyzed and discussed), the child spends much of their time translating the activity and its connotations rather than experiencing and learning from it. Although culture shock is a valid concern for English Language Learners, it does not necessarily dictate that current behavioral or academic difficulties exist or that they are guaranteed to arise. It is merely a layer that one must be aware of and look beneath in the event that those difficulties do become apparent.
Is Language Hiding the Problem...
These behaviors can include a lack of speech in any language, a perceived inability to understand, respond to, or follow directions, or becoming physically violent. Generally speaking, if a child’s negative behavior and academic skills are language-induced, he or she should progress through four stages of second language learning over a period of six weeks to a year. The first of these is continuing to use the home language, followed by a period of “non-cooperation” where he or she does not speak at all. The lack of speech at this point can be perceived as obstinance, especially since children do not progress linearly through the stages, rather moving back and forth between them as their skills develop. When reacted to in an unsupportive way, escalation of physical aggression and frustration can appear. The next two phases are the more outwardly productive phases - the experimentation of sound and vocabulary and the continued use of the new language. (CSEFEL, 2007) However, they are not the ones where the most work and learning take place. Before a student feels comfortable enough to make the sounds of a new language and uses it more freely, he must be able to quickly internalize and analyze it; he discovers and focuses on the things and subjects that are most important to him and he prioritizes his learning according to those desires. (McGlothlin, 1997)
...or is it Causing the Problem?
Supportive environments extend beyond the classroom as well. The student’s parents are a resource that can often be overlooked, especially if they do not speak English themselves. The supportive teacher will visit homes, ask questions where they can, and should find ways to integrate common phrases from the child’s home life and language into the classroom to help ease the learning transition. If possible, invite parents to visit the classroom to observe their child’s behavior and provide a means of support. (Arias & Morillo-Campbell, 2008, pg 8, 9)
Finally, once the typical acclimation period of six to nine months has been completed, the teacher must evaluate the student’s progress. If after the appropriate adjustment time the student has made academic progress or behavioral improvement, it can be concluded that the behaviors were language-induced. Conversely, if there has been little to no improvement in either area, steps can then be taken to evaluate the need for a special needs referral through collaboration with the school’s problem-solving team. (Artiles and Ortiz, 2002, pg 6)
Discussion of Limitations
Of Students/Parents – Parents of ELL students may not speak English and have a difficult time trusting people that they view outside of their social group. Some parents prefer linguistic isolation, where the family speaks and hears only the native language unless forced otherwise by outside influences. (Arias & Morillo-Campbell, 2008, pg 8) This limits the scope and accuracy of data collection.
Of Instructors: As mentioned in a study conducted by Pierette Charles (2011), teachers often lack knowledge of the process and nature of language learning. Much research is done on special education, the various types of disabilities, and what to look for but little has been done on English Language Learners as a distinct group. Further research is needed to correctly identify the needs of those students and the most effective responses to those needs.
Conclusion and Future Study
To understand further the impact of culture on students’ language and the impact that language has on their way of thinking, read Guy Deutscher’s book “Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” (2011). Also read Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s “Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution” (1969), which delves in to the link between naming a color and then being able to see it, followed by Barbara Saunders’ “Revisiting Basic Color Terms” at http://human-nature.com/science-as-culture/saunders.html.
Artiles, A. J., & Ortiz, A. A. (2002). English learners and special education: before asssessing a child for special education, first assess the instructional program. Retrieved from Center for Applied Linguistics website: http://www.misd.net/Bilingual/ellsandspedcal.pdf
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (2007). Understanding the impact of language differences on classroom behavior. Retrieved from Child Care and Head Start Bureau website: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/kits/wwbtk2.pdf
Charles, P. (2011). Factors influencing middle school teachers when referring English language learners to special education. Retrieved from http://www.udini.proquest.com/view/factors-influencing-middle-school-pqid:2249261181/
Detscher, G. (2010, August 6). Does your language shape how you think? New York Times, MM42. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)
Dictionary.com (n.d.). capital, Spanish Words. Retrieved from http://spanish.dictionary.com/wordoftheday/capital
Flores-Moreno, C. (2007). Mexico non-formal education (2008/ED/EFA/MRTPI/31). Retrieved from United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization website: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001555/155522e.pdf
Harmon, S. (2007). Gender in the romance language: an evolutionary approach. Retrieved from http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/3435/harmons89381.pdf?sequence=2
McGlothlin, J. (1997). A child's first steps in language learning. Teachers of Englidh as a Second Language Journal, 3(10), 1. Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Articles/McGlothlin-ChildLearn.html
Nakhallah, A. M. (2011). Difficulties and problems facing english students at QOU in the translation process from English to Arabic and their solutions. Retrieved from Al-Quds Open University website: http://www.qou.edu/english/conferences/firstNationalConference/pdfFiles/ahmadMaher.pdf
Wyer, K. (2008). English only policies in schools found to fail. Retrieved from http://sudikoff.gseis.ucla.edu/archive/pdfs/language/PR_Gandara_ForbiddenLanguage.pdf