David R. M. Saavedra
I am so frustrated! I feel like I’m getting nowhere with the
language, and I’m constantly reminded exactly how much I
don’t know. I turn on the television or radio; I can’t understand
anything. I try to communicate; nothing happens. I leave class
more confused than when I entered.
At 22 years old, I entered the Peace Corps and went to teach in rural Mozambique. Although it was difficult—as this entry in my journal reflects—over time and with intensive lan- guage training, I learned to speak Portuguese
fluently. I came to love Mozambique, the people, and the
culture so much that I extended my service there.
A few years after returning to the United States, I began
teaching English as a second language and history to
English language learners at Cambridge Rindge and Latin
School in Massachusetts, an urban high school with close
to 1,900 students. Approximately 6 percent of the student
population are English language learners.
I soon realized my experience in Mozambique mirrored my students’ experiences here. I had moved to a
new country very different from my own, just as they had.
Like them, I had adapted to a new culture and learned a
new language. Empathizing with the struggles that many
of my current students face became the foundation for my
approach to teaching English language learners. I often call
on my experiences to understand my students and their
states of mind, show them I care about them, and move
them from frustration to rigorous, meaningful learning.
Empathizing with language learners in terms of their
struggles can aid their learning. Krashen (1982) theorizes
that anxiety, low self-confidence, and other negative emotions can create an affective filter that blocks learning,
especially the learning of a new language. When this filter
is lower, learning is enhanced (Gass & Selinker, 2001).
Showing empathy mitigates students’ anxiety and stress,
lowering their affective filter and leading to deeper learning.
Here, interspersed with entries from the journal I kept
in Mozambique, are areas in which I’ve found that empathizing with English language learners makes a difference in
their ability to achieve.
Treat Silence Gently
I feel like I’m an observer, watching myself go through every-thing. . . . If ever I would define my life as surreal, this would
When a person arrives in a country where he or she
doesn’t speak the language, observation is the first instinct.
Silence is a coping mechanism during this adjustment phase
as a newcomer focuses simply on taking in information
(Igoa, 1995). This is called the silent or nonverbal period.
Students at this stage, as its name suggests, are nearly or
completely silent. This stage can last anywhere from a few
days to a few months, with younger children tending to
refrain from speaking longer (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago,
I remember feeling overwhelmed with new information
in Mozambique: unfamiliar sounds, gestures, people,
Is the Gateway
Drawing on an experience of being in a completely
foreign culture helps a high school teacher put
himself in English language learners’ shoes.