Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Beyond the Language Barrier: Opening Spaces for ELL/Non-ELL Interaction

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Beyond the Language Barrier: Opening Spaces for ELL/Non-ELL Interaction

Article excerpt

"I learned English by fighting with people," Marisol told me matter-of-factly. As a nine-year-old Cuban immigrant, her first year in the United States was tough. The other kids teased her because she didn't speak English. She couldn't understand her teachers and didn't find value in her English as a Second Language classes. To escape, Marisol would cry in the privacy of the school bathroom. Through tenacity, time, and television, she eventually taught herself English and made friends with the girls she used to fight. Now a college-bound high school senior reflecting on her difficult early experiences, Marisol explained in an interview, "If you don't know the language, what are you gonna do? You're pretty much lost. Language is everything." Listening to Marisol's story, I marveled at her resilience and resourcefulness, and mourned her seemingly unnecessary suffering. The powerful influence of the language barrier, or alternatively, the access created once she had a command of English, was apparent. And still I wondered: Must language, as Marisol concluded, be constructed or perceived as "everything" in our work with English Language Learners (ELLs) in schools?

The term itself-"English language learner"-foregrounds language even though it encompasses scores of native languages, cultures, socioeconomic levels, and educational backgrounds, not to mention a kaleidoscope of individual aspirations and life experiences. Consequently, it is both peculiar and understandable that ELLs are often defined by the one characteristic they all share: a primary language other than English. This emphasis is understandable given the enormous role that language plays in learning; however, the primacy granted to English may create reductive frames that overshadow the human, relational, and ethical factors that profoundly affect the experience of English learners and their non-ELL peers (Orellana & Gutiérrez, 2006). Indeed, the personal vulnerability and discomfort often associated with cross-linguistic and cross-cultural interaction is not adequately addressed in the literature. Additionally, there is little research documenting young people's perspectives related to ELL/non-ELL interaction, even though such interaction could be a seedbed for English language acquisition and the bidirectional sharing and construction of academic, linguistic, and cultural understanding.

In response to this gap, I explore a case of ELL/non-ELL interaction in which a group of culturally and linguistically diverse high-school students collaboratively created a video. This is the story of a project initially designed to overcome the language barrier-and how we discovered that our strategic approaches were insufficient to explain, predict, or solve interactional challenges and opportunities. Drawing on participant voices and Levinasian philosophy, I consider both linguistic and ethical dimensions of their interaction, attending to ways participants interacted through and despite linguistic obstacles. As an alternative to the notion of closing gaps created by the language barrier, I propose opening spaces as a possible approach for foregrounding the ethical and human dimensions of interaction across linguistic difference.

ELL/Non-ELL Interaction at School: Aspirations, Scaffolding, and Complexities

A prominent storyline in the literature describes the potential positive outcomes of the interaction of ELLs and their non-ELL peers. The possible benefits include linguistic development and awareness, support in academic learning, cross-cultural understanding, and friendship (Bunch, Abram, Lotan, & Valdés, 2001; Gunderson, 2000; Harklau, 1994; Lantolf, 2000; Pica, Lincoln-Porter, Paninos, & Linnell, 1996; Walqui, 2006; Yoon, 2007). These aspirations are complicated, however, by the welldocumented, pervasive separation of ELLs from their fluent English-speaking peers. Isolated by language, culture, and social distinctions, ELLs are often segregated de facto by curricular tracking, limiting their participation to mostly ESL classes (Callahan, 2005; Gitlin, Buendía, Crosland, & Doumbia, 2003). …

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