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I Learned English and Found My Voice
Sandra Paucar

When I came to the United States from Ecuador four years ago, I had to adjust to many changes.

The biggest change of all was adjusting to the language. In my country, I was a good student. But in school here, I felt like I was set apart from the "normal" kids who spoke English.

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It was difficult to accept not being able to communicate with anyone I wanted and knowing I couldn't make English-speaking friends.

When I came to this country, I thought it would be easy to learn English. I thought it would be similar to Spanish and that you would write things the way they sounded. But after I started ESL classes, I began to see that it was going to be hard.

My First English Test: a Big Zero

When I registered for 7th grade at IS 71, in Brooklyn, I was placed in a bilingual class with other Spanish-speaking students.

My mother and I both believed that bilingual education was the best choice for students like me who didn't know any English. By taking all my subject classes in Spanish and taking ESL to learn English, we thought I wouldn't fall behind.

On my second day of school here, we had a spelling test. I didn't know about it, so I didn't study. When the teacher gave the test, I was like, "What is he saying?"

"One, two, three..." the teacher dictated.

I couldn't understand him. I wrote every word the way it sounded to me: "uan, tu, tri."

You can imagine how I did. When the teacher gave me my paper back, I saw a big zero.

I felt like a loser, a dumb good-for-nothing, because in my country, I was a girl with good grades. It made me feel like I was pressed to the wall and worth less than people who knew English.

I Felt Isolated

Almost all my classes were taught in Spanish. I had ESL class once every day and gym once a week. Having only two classes in English was good for a while because I could concentrate on my regular work like math, social studies and science.

But by the middle of the school year, I didn't feel like I was learning fast enough. After a year in the United States, and half a year in school, I could only understand a little English.

For instance, I could go to a token booth to buy tokens and make myself understood, but I might not understand if the token seller asked me something.

Being unable to understand even simple conversations made me feel isolated. At school, I used to watch the English-speaking students at lunch, and I envied their ability to speak to whomever they wanted. It became my goal to be able to communicate like them.

No English, No Defense

But I didn't have any friends who could speak English, and I couldn't eat with any English speakers during lunch. The three bilingual classes ate in the cafeteria at the same time as the regular classes, but all the classes sat separately.

Even though it was not the school's intention to segregate students, I felt segregated.

Plus, some English-speaking students looked at the bilingual students as inferior. Some would push us when they saw us in the halls.

I remember one time an English-speaking student said, "F-ck you," to me and then started to say, "Bilingual students s-ck."

I wanted to defend myself, but since I couldn't speak English, I thought I'd better stay quiet. When the bilingual students defended themselves, they sometimes got into fights. Sometimes they would get suspended.

Even when the English speakers weren't trying to make us feel inferior, I felt it.

image by Micah Zurer

I Wanted To Be Involved

As time went on, I wanted to know more teachers, to be involved in extracurricular activities, and to have people outside the bilingual program get to know me.

But since I couldn't communicate, I felt alone and left out.

One time I signed up for a video class in English. I would watch the students who knew English speak and wish I could be involved.

But I just sat there because the teacher didn't push me to get involved, and I was too shy to ask questions.

The students who knew English were involved in many activities such as volleyball, school yearbook and chorus. But I felt like I couldn't be involved in those activities.

Learning English From TV

In 8th grade, I felt less and less shy about speaking English. I made my parents buy a book that I think was called, How to Learn English Faster.

That helped me learn things like the pronouns, the days of the week, the months and numbers. I was learning some of these things at school, but in the book I was able to move faster.

I also started to go to the library to take out easy English books like The Magic School Bus.

And I started listening to radio stations like Lite FM and Z-100 and watching TV shows like "Full House" and "Blossom."

At first I would just watch their actions, but little by little I began to understand what they were saying.

A School For Immigrants

I did everything I could to learn more. Whenever I didn't know the meaning of words I heard at school, I would stay after class and ask the teacher the meaning, pronunciation and spelling.

I took a summer class in English, because at home or with my friends, nobody knew English, so I couldn't practice. Still, I wasn't able to have a normal conversation.

It wasn't until I went to high school that I became fluent. My school, International HS, is an alternative high school with students from many different countries, and everything is taught in English.

Most of the students come to the school hardly speaking any English, and since all their classes are taught in English, they are forced to learn quickly.

We Learned English Together

Being in a school where all the students are learning the language makes me feel like I can join activities without being self-conscious.

At first, I would sit in class and not understand much. When I didn't understand, I would ask somebody next to me who spoke Spanish.

I would do my work using very simple words. Little by little, I began understanding more English. After only a year at International HS, I was able to understand and speak English.

Now I can get to know English-speaking teachers, and if I have questions, I don't feel too shy to ask.

I can also read books at my level, like Richard Wright's novel Native Son, which I just finished. I listen to American music and even sing along.

Besides learning the language, I've learned another important lesson. I feel very proud that I can show others that if you want to do something and try hard, you can do it.