An immigrant himself, junior Mateus Borlot at Holliston High School confided that he “couldn’t speak [English] at all” before coming to the United States.
Along with Borlot, there are several students at HHS who have immigrated from another country and speak English as a second language. Upon coming to America immigrants are expected to learn English; however, this is a difficult and arduous task.
The son of Portuguese immigrants who do not speak a word of English, Borlot has been here for two years and had attended Framingham High School before coming to take classes at HHS. Specifically, he is taking classes in the HHS English Language Learners (ELL) program in order to better his English.
“Learning English was difficult in Framingham because most of us would just speak our native languages [of Spanish and Portuguese] and not a lot of learning happened,” explained Borlot. “Here is different. Here we are constantly speaking, listening, writing, and reading [in English]. Since coming here about a year ago, I have improved a lot and I have become much better.”
The ELL program and the other foreign language programs both teach a new language, but the ELL program is much smaller. One class has three students whereas one of the French Immersion classes has over 20 students.
When asked how he would compare the classes, Borlot described how he felt they were very different. He has only ever been in the ELL classes, but being in the same wing, he sees the activities of all the other classes.
“I think it is different because we are in a much smaller setting, and it is easier to talk. We have more opportunities to talk, and this gives us more opportunities to learn,” he said. “We also know each other, so that helps us speak more too.”
Yet, like the other foreign language classrooms, the ELL program follows a curriculum used to teach English. The same four skills are stressed in both the ELL and other language programs: speaking, reading, writing, and listening.
“I try to keep it balanced. We have very different levels of skills in this room so we use scoring and initial evaluations to structure individual learning and the learning of the whole class,” explained HHS ELL teacher, Mrs. Andrea Weingartner. “We do have a curriculum, but I also include things that are authentic because I think that is very important.”
Mrs. Weingartner is HHS’s only ELL teacher and has been here for five years. An immigrant herself, Mrs. Weingartner was born and raised in Austria. She speaks both English and German and she feels this has impacted her career.
“It helps [that I am bilingual and an immigrant] because I understand what they are going through. I am not just telling it, I am living it.” She then went on to say that this helps establish an “important special relationship [between her and her students].”
In the classroom, she described how her students practice vocabulary as a class, in addition to brainstorming together. Because of the different levels, she details that the students will all do readings or writings at the same time, but they will do varying degrees of work.
“Everyone does a reading but there are different levels [of difficulty depending on proficiency] and everyone does a different amount of writing [if we are doing a writing activity],” she explained. “Some write a few sentences, some write a paragraph, and some write a five paragraph essay.”
Mrs. Weingartner also said that ELL classes are not just about learning English. She said she also teaches American history and information about American customs.
“I believe it is essential to know about customs. For example, we learn about holidays and why we celebrate them. It is very important to understand why we do things,” she explained. “There are also many cultural differences we often address, and we learn about different cultures too. Actions and customs have different meanings in different cultures so we learn what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
While knowing it is important to act accordingly to American culture, Mrs. Weingartner also acknowledges that her students are “scared of losing their own culture.” This isn’t the case, however, as she described how they “are not losing their culture, they are just adding another one.”
The ELL students at HHS are able to accomplish all of this learning in one or two class periods. Mrs. Weingartner said the students are with her for two periods at most and are in other classes for the other periods.
“Depending on their proficiency, they are with me for one or two blocks, and we start them in electives the other blocks. This is to socialize them more [as the class sizes are very small] and it makes it easier for them to make friends,” she explained. “The goal of the program is to then move them into more challenging classes, like core classes,” when they have gotten stronger with their English.
These programs are in place in order for the ELL students to have a comfortable learning environment to become better at English. Mrs. Weingartener notes that “the small size helps a lot to learn faster.”
“[They] always have to participate and are always actively engaged,” she said. “This helps us build special relationship that I believe are very important [in their learning].”
Sophomore Josue Lobos, agrees with Borlot on the usefulness of the ELL program. Lobos is a U.S. native, but his parents are Spanish immigrants. He was born in Framingham and then came to Holliston after one year. He was then enrolled in a district of Holliston for kindergarten and has been in school learning English since then.
“The programs have been really helpful,” he said. “The start was rough but it has gotten much better since then.”
Even for the students that have some background in English, the programs have been helpful. Junior Louis Largent, a Belgian native, has only been here for a few weeks but has already seen improvements. English is his third language as he is already fluent in French and Dutch.
“I learn better here,” he said. “School helps a lot [with my English] and being here is a very good change.”
Back in Belgium, Largent had already had experience with learning the English Language in a classroom setting, but he described how they had not been very helpful. He confided they were “a bit boring” and the “English vocabulary was not very difficult.” He also said how most of his classmates had never spoken a word of English, but he had some background from family experience.
“My dad lived in the U.S. for about 20 years, and he came back to Belgium when he was 30. He speaks perfect English, as does my grandfather. My parents work a lot, so I live with my grandfather and that has given me some experience from speaking with him for five years. I also currently live with my aunt in America, and they only speak English which is very good for me.”
All three of the ELL students agree that these programs have been helpful to advance their learning, and that they would not be as fluent as they are without it. However, these types of opportunities for structured learning are not always available.
Mme. France Murphy, a French teacher at HHS, is also an English-as-as-second language immigrant. She started learning English as a freshman in high school back in France as part of a language requirement for the students.
“We had to choose between English, German, and Spanish, and we needed to take two out of the three to graduate,” she explained. “English was my first language out of these three.”
Mme. Murphy also described the way the languages were taught, and the methods of teaching are very different in execution from the ELL programs here.
“It was all memorization. We had pages and pages of irregular verbs,” she said. “We then had to recite them over and over and this was how we were taught.” Laughing, she went on to say, “I don’t think it was very effective because I can only remember the first line of verbs.”
This was not her only experience with English before she moved here permanently. Mme. Murphy also detailed how she went to an English farm for three weeks in the summer and continued learning English in college, both in France and in America.
“I was very lucky because I had a rich godmother who would send me to a farm in England for three weeks in the summer. No one there spoke a word of French, so it was a very good learning experience for me,” said Mme. Murphy.
Her college experiences were also very influential on her English skills. At college in France, she was majoring in business and was selected for an exchange program with Northeastern University in Boston. She stayed in the U.S. for 11 months to finish her program. She then traveled back and forth from France to America for four years, attending classes at a community college in Pittsburg.
“I couldn’t transfer what I had learned about English in France, but I still had a little bit of an advantage with my previous experience,” she explained. “I’m lucky I’m not shy and that I have a good sense of humor. Otherwise, things would have been very different.”
When asked about what helped her learn the best, she described how her experience as a whole really helped her learn English.
“My previous experience definitely gave me an advantage, but I still struggled. I still make mistakes, even today. The best way to learn a language is to live in the country. This coupled with schooling is how you learn a new language.”
Mme. Murphy’s immigration to the United States was an active choice. She was able to ease her transition ever so slightly with her structured learning from college and the other schooling she received. However, for many immigrants, structured learning is not available if the immigrants are too old for school or cannot afford college. Some do not have time to commit to engage in constant learning.
This is true for German immigrant Edith Hoffmann who moved here in 1965. She explained that she had “no choice but to learn English.” She began working full time upon her arrival in the country and thus did not have time to fit in a structured learning course to better her English.
“I came over here when I married [my husband] and I had had no real basis in English. In high school, I took Greek and Latin, and we were required to take one modern language. I took English, but our classes were only about one hour a week, so it amounted to nothing,” said Hoffmann.
This put her at an immense disadvantage when she came over to America. She described how she “always understood enough to take two words and make a sentence” but that was the extent of her knowledge.
“My structured programs did not help me as much, but that could be because I hated my teacher. I learned English by immersing myself in the language. I watched a lot of old comedies. “‘The Dick Van Dyke’ show was my favorite,” said Hoffmann.
Hoffman described how the television really enhanced her learning because it “showed the expressions.” She explained how this enabled her to “put together what they were trying to say.”
“Structured learning might have helped me, but I’m not sure. At the time, I think I just needed to learn English as quickly as possible. I was always worried about making a fool of myself or not speaking right,” she said.
ELL programs and structured learning benefit those who partake in them and allow people to gain access to the advantages of being bilingual. For immigrants like Hoffmann and Mme. Murphy, the programs were often not available during the times when they immigrated. When these programs are not available, the burden is often on the immigrant themselves to learn the language on their own. ELL programs are more common now and help immigrants take advantage of learning English and becoming bilingual.
“Learning English is important because you need to speak with other people, and it is important to communicate. There are jobs that require English, and we [people who are bilingual] will have an advantage in the working world,” explained Borlot. “That is why I’m glad I’m learning English and I have access to these programs.”