Connecting With the American Dialect

West Potomac High School's World English Literacy class includes Elizabeth Melody, center, and Ashton Youbuty.
West Potomac High School's World English Literacy class includes Elizabeth Melody, center, and Ashton Youbuty. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005

Alex Wollor speaks English. It is the language he used at home, in school and on the streets in his native Liberia.

So when the teenager fled the civil war there, eventually settling with his mother and sisters in Fairfax County five years ago, he expected the shared language to ease his transition. But he found that classmates often gave him blank looks, unable to understand what he said. Teachers found fault with his written work.

"I thought it was going to be the same, but when I came here, it wasn't," Wollor, 16, said. "You know how people speak slangs? In Africa, people have different slangs. If I was talking fast, you wouldn't understand me."

In the past several decades, the influx of children of all nationalities has led to the development of successful programs to teach immigrants as they learn English. But teachers are finding that it is a very different challenge to educate such West African students as Wollor, who come from vastly different cultures where the mother tongue is English, but not the standard American version.

Educators say that learning a different form of English can be even more challenging than picking up an entirely new language, because students never know when the habits of a lifetime will be right or wrong. "It's very frustrating for them," said Dena Sewell, a dual-language assessment teacher with Fairfax County schools. "They've learned English, and all of a sudden we say, 'You don't speak English the right way.' "

Fairfax schools have a pilot World English Literacy class at West Potomac High School to help West African immigrants. Montgomery County schools are creating a program for all World English speakers, who can include children from places as divergent as the Caribbean, Australia and Canada. Other districts are using a one-on-one approach.

A complex blend of linguistic and cultural phenomena set English-speaking students from Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone apart from other World English speakers, educators say. Most West African children learned a form of English in school and are fluent in it, but many lag in reading and writing partly because of limited or interrupted schooling. Socially, many of them speak Creole, a mix of English and regional dialects. And many have experienced or witnessed violence in their home countries, leaving psychological scars that make learning harder.

Sewell, a veteran English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher who started with Fairfax schools in the 1970s, said she started to see a need for new teaching techniques in the mid-1990s as a small wave of families began to arrive from West Africa. Between 1995 and 2000, school officials said, 481 West African children moved into the district. In the 2001-02 school year alone, 268 additional children from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria entered Fairfax schools.

Teachers soon found that their new students weren't a good fit for the ESOL system. It was clear that an English-speaking child from Sierra Leone didn't belong in a class next to a newcomer from Vietnam or El Salvador who spoke a completely different language. But that same student struggled in classes with students who were reading and writing at a much higher level.

In 2002, Sewell formed the World English Speakers Team, a group of Fairfax teachers and administrators who set out to determine what was going wrong for West African students and what would work. They found that teachers sometimes chalk up apparent errors in writing to sloppiness or bad behavior, failing to understand the cultural and linguistic gaps. ("I feel that they think their English was acceptable in their 'previous life' and see no reason to change," one Fairfax teacher wrote in response to a questionnaire about World English students.)

The survey also found that the students often don't perceive differences in their version of English and American English and grow frustrated at their placement in classes with those who were learning English for the first time.

To complicate matters, the students adapt their spoken English quickly and, like any teenagers, pick up the latest American expressions. But their ease in conversational English masks the difficulties they face in learning, or relearning, the grammar rules they need for writing.

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