August 2nd, 2010

Podcast - "A Big Change in My Life": Learning ESL in NYC

( Click here to download the podcast )

In an ESL class - English as a Second Language - everyone is new to the country. They’re learning a new language, new customs… But what’s it like to learn English in a class where everyone - except you - speaks Spanish?

10th grader Jennifer Addo immigrated to New York from Ghana in 2009, and grew up speaking Twi (pronounced “Tree”) - a traditional West African language. She now attends the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem, New York - a neighborhood where more than half of the population identifies as Hispanic.

(Note: This story was produced by youth at the Coalition School for Social Change in collaboration with the youth-media program Children’s PressLine. Because English is Jennifer’s second language, she may be hard to understand at times throughout the story. Please feel free to use the transcript below to follow along.)

For more information on Children’s PressLine, please visit


[Sound up: street sounds, cars passing]

[Jen, walking: Right now, I’m on 125th and 5th avenue. I’m about to cross the street.]

Jen: My name is Jennifer. I’m from Ghana.

I came here with my dad and my two twin sisters.

My mom’s in Ghana with my baby sister. She did not get a visa.

[bus passing]

[entering school, walking upstairs]

Jen: In the morning like 8 o’clock… It’s ESL class. I’ve been in that class for like…eight months.

[Sound up: Neva in front of class]

Jen: My first language is Twi. When I started school I started speaking English, when I was like six years.
Like…Ghana we speak English, but we don’t speak like how Americans speak. Americans, they speak it fast. But in Ghana we don’t speak it fast like that. So when I come here it was difficult for me.

[Neva: Nerlandi, will you read us your response please? You're too shy? Oh my goodness...]

Jen: I don’t know, I feel shy. I feel shy when I’m talking. I’m not shy when I speak Twi, but sometimes English, my accent is not good so…that makes me shy.

[laughing, Spanish speaking in class]

Jen: Most of the kids speak Spanish in the class.

Auri: My name’s Auri, I’m from Dominican Republic.

Carlos: My name is Carlos, and I’m from Dominican Republic.

Ranfis: My name is Ranfis, I came from the Dominican Republic.

Jen: They’re Dominican, they’re Puerto Rican people.

Carlos: Most of the people in the ESL room is from Dominican Republic. In my house they only speak Spanish, my mother, my grandfather, me, my sister, my brother…

Auri: My mom, my cousins, my dad…

Ranfis: My father speaks Spanish sometimes and sometimes he speaks English…

Auri: All my friends mostly I speak Spanish.

Jen: I don’t speak Spanish. Just me.

[post - buzz sound]

Jen: When I was first coming here, I didn’t know…I didn’t even know that they got some Spanish people here. The only thing I knew was blacks and whites, that’s it.

Jen: When I came here, they gave me a Spanish class, but I didn’t know nothing about Spanish. So I told them I can’t do it.

Jen: It’s hard for me.

Jen: When you’re with the Spanish people and they’re speaking Spanish, you don’t know what a person is saying. That is hard.

[post - music]

Carlos: When I speak Spanish I feel like I’m in my country. In Dominican Republic.

Daniel: When I was with my friends, my family speaking Spanish.

Carlos: That’s my natural language.

Ranfis: I feel more comfortable because I know Spanish better than English and I understand everything they’re saying and I don’t feel like…

Jen: …that’s my language and because I know everything…everything in there, so. When I’m talking, I’m good.

Jen: I wish there were other people in this school that speak Twi.

Jen: If you are the only one in school that speak Twi or one language that no one can even hear you when you’re speaking it, it’s sad. So she’s speaking with them.
Jen: And I’m like, [fade out music] Oh my god, I wish my school got the same. I would speak with them.

[Beat. Fade in classroom]

[Classroom B Roll: Neva: Do you think English in the United States, do you think it’s a good idea to have English as the universal language?]

Daniel: Yes.

Neva: Why?

Daniel: They say, the more languages you know, the more your pocket grows. [laughs]

Jen: My teacher in ESL Class is Neva. [My name is Neva and I am an ESL teacher here at the Coalition School for Social Change.]

Neva: If they start speaking Spanish to each other, that’s fine. Obviously when the material is presented, chalk and talk I like to call it, everybody is in English and for the purpose of academic responses, each student will respond in English.

Neva: Most English as a Second Language Teachers would agree, when they’re speaking amongst themselves, they can speak in their own heritage languages.

[Classroom: Neva: Explain how these jobs, performed by immigrants, contribute to the American economy...Daniel: many jobs are filled by immigrants who cannot speak English but they are able to contribute to the American economy by taking jobs that other Americans may not desire…]

[Neva: Good class, good class. Have a nice weekend!]

Jen: I want to be a nurse. My auntie says, no, set the high one first. If someone ask you, be like you wanna be a doctor.

Jen: She said you need to know Spanish when you working. Cause…someone might come there and the person don’t know how to speak English so you got to translate it for the person.

Jen: I think I want to take Spanish again.

[post - music]

Jen: I miss my mom a lot. I miss her. My auntie was like, oh, I’ll take you to a visit, and I was like, I’m not going, I’m not going. I want to get my job, do everything before I want to go there. When I get my job…I’m going to visit, oh my god. I wish it’s happening.

Jen: I’ll be like, oh mom…I’m here! She’ll be happy.

Jen: For Children’s PressLine, I’m Jennifer Addo.

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