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“Where are you from?”: The Immigrant Experience at East

November 1, 2018

In the past few years, immigration has come into the spotlight, as the rhetoric surrounding the issue rose to national prominence.

The timing of this is not coincidental, as now more than ever, America is a nation of immigrants: Fifteen percent of the nation’s population is made up of those who were born on foreign soil, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On the same token, about 16 percent of Cherry Hill’s population is made of immigrants.
In a recent poll of 72 East students, over 70 percent of respondents reported that they knew someone who was an immigrant at Cherry Hill East. About 30 percent of students reported that their parents were immigrants. But what is it like for East students who immigrated to the United States? For the past month, Eastside has compiled interviews from both teachers and students in order to provide insight into the immigrant experience at East, from the history of immigration itself to the words of immigrants at East themselves.

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The History of Immigration

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Audio interviews with staff immigrants

An interview with Carmella Griffo

An interview with Simona Schultes

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East’s ESL program allows for language learning opportunities

For many immigrants to the United States, starting over in a new country means learning an entirely new language in order to stay afloat in society. For students, public schools in all 50 states provide classes for English language learners (ELLs). Cherry Hill East is one of these schools.

“[East’s ESL program] would go as far back as we’ve had students that are limited English proficient and need help,” said Ms. Angela Capio, who teaches East’s ESL classes.

The ESL program emphasizes academic English, with the belief that students can pick up conversational English by socializing with their peers. Instead of focusing on dialect, students learn the meaning of common English class phrases such as plot, figurative language and metaphor. ESL students also work to read novels: Capio’s H-block class is currently reading The House on Mango Street.

“They can talk about where they live; they can answer basic questions; they know classroom commands, and they can function in their other classes…” said Capio. “We’re teaching words that don’t come up in everyday conversation.”

The program has grown over the past couple of years; a greater number of students are now enrolled in East’s ESL program. Also, there is now an ESL homeroom which students can attend to increase their conversational fluency in English and help each other with homework and projects for their other classes.  

“The population has grown, which is really nice…I remember my first day [at East], I had one student in my beginner class, and that quickly grew to about four. Right now, I have seven students in my beginner class and 12 in my advanced class, so that’s the most that I’ve had” said Capio.

The ESL program does extend outside of Capio’s classroom, however. By law, ELLs must be able to succeed in other, rigorous academic classes, according to Ms. Rebecca Metzger, department head of the ESL program. In order for this to become a reality, Capio works with other teachers to adjust lessons and assessments to enable her students to succeed.

“Beginners belong in biology and world civ, and they’re actually learning English by participating in those classes, and they have civil rights, so those students are entitled to graduate in four years,” said Capio. “So we have to figure out how to accommodate them in those classes.”

Additionally, Cum Laude Tutoring will start offering ESL help after school in November.

“A student who was ELL herself came to us over the summer and described…some of the challenges that she had in transitioning to America and to the Cherry Hill School District back in middle school, and she thought it would be a great idea to have some sort of mentoring program in place for students like her, who are making the transition to the United States,” said Mr. William Semus, faculty adviser of Cum Laude, of the decision to institute tutoring for ELLs. The tutoring will be less based on helping with class work and more conversational, according to Semus.

The ESL curriculum is also getting an update for next school year. Capio, members of the central administration and the ESL teacher at West are currently working on an updated, more standard curriculum for ESL classes.

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A loss of words: The Importance of Native Tongues

Throughout American history, many have called the United States a “melting pot.” In this country, thousands of cultures and dialects come together to live and communicate with one another. Immigrants who have the privilege to live in the United States force themselves to assimilate into the “American culture”; however, many do not realize that the American culture is in itself derived from thousands of cultures from all around the world.

In the process of assimilation, a family, an immigrant, an individual can lose touch with their native tongue. Whether it be distancing themselves from the stereotypes of broken English or attempting to quicken assimilation, immigrants are facing a tough realization that their children and their children’s children will lack the ability to speak their native tongue.

As a first-generation American, I can already see the side effects of talking in English 24/7. At the age of eight, I was not able to speak English. Both of my immigrant parents made sure to stop talking Turkish at home and enforce English to help better their pronunciation and increase the amount of time I spent speaking English. Looking back, I see that this was a grave mistake. Slowly over the years my sounds and my speech turned away from the Turkish alphabet and transitioned into an American accent. Currently, I speak Turkish better than my brother, a freshman here at East, does. I find this urge to constantly try to keep the connection I have with my native language, but it becomes difficult when one is totally immersed in English.

My own story is not unique, as second and third generation immigrants slowly start to lose their connection with each successive generation. Hence, a trend emerges: the first generation speaks, second understands and third loses the language. In a 2010 Pew Hispanic Research Study, Pew Research found that by the third generation only 40 percent spoke Spanish compared to 82 percent of first-generation speakers. Furthermore, the Pew Hispanic Research concluded that 97 percent of those between ages 16 and 25 in the third generation spoke English, whereas only 42 percent of first-generation immigrants spoke English. This language trend not only applies to Hispanic immigrants but all across the board as American born generations are losing their ability to communicate in their own language. The emphasis of parents and family members who want to “blend into American society” neglect the consequences of only speaking in English.

The overall pattern of severe assimilation is affecting immigrant families from all parts of the world. My mother who struggled with English instilled in my brother and I the importance of being able to express ourselves in any language. However, most of the time when my brother and I try to express our opinions or discuss certain topics that need higher vocabulary we cannot fall back on to Turkish. We simply do not have the vocabulary. Every year as I return back to Turkey it shocks me and awakens me to how much my connection to another language decreases. Would I consider myself fluent? To an extent, yes: I can read, speak, write and understand the language but I will never be able to fully identify myself to my relatives with the Turkish language.

Connecting and comprehending another language or culture is not only a vital skill but also helps connect the world. There are so many divisions in the world we live in, but with the power of language we can break these barriers and connect with our own relatives or other diverse groups around the world. My parents came to the United States in hope of a better life and their journey was not easy. It would be ignorant of me not to acknowledge their culture, their language, and their ancestors with the language that they speak. Native languages build the story of an individual and the history of American dialect. The ability to keep the bond between generations is not only vital to my parent’s story but it is vital to the country’s story as each and every member of American society can retain the roots their ancestors planted so long ago.

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