Think Twice: The unnerving truth behind ESL

Jana Isern, Staff Writer

It was a Wednesday morning. I was in my first block class and I was falling asleep as usual because why on earth would anyone take math at 7:30 a.m. with a brain running on five hours of sleep? The class phone rings, waking me up. The teacher turns to me and says, “Jana, you have to go take a test in the 200 hallway. They said to take all your stuff.” 

At first, I felt panic of course, I had no idea what test she was talking about. My parents hadn’t been notified and I had no idea what was happening. By the time I was in the room I figured that it was probably a mistake and I would be sent back. 

Boy was I wrong. 

I was the first one there. “How do you pronounce your whole name?” the lady in the room asked. Right off the bat that was a terrible sign. “Where are you from?” and there it was, the same four words that always send panic through my veins. I had a feeling then that whatever I was in there for, had probably something to do with the fact that I was a foreigner. 

I answered her curiosities, her questions, and her little remarks, which were probably not mal-intended, but made it a point to remind me that I’m not from here.

I asked her why I was there and she said that she didn’t want to say anything yet because more people would be coming and she didn’t want to repeat herself. 


I was taken in the middle of my math class. I am freaking out because as an immigrant there is a very familiar feeling that all of us go through when we are reminded that everything can go wrong in a split second, and you tell me that I have to wait to actually know what I’m here for? 

I waited for 20 minutes. 

At one point another student came in. He was a boy and I had never seen him before. The lady pointed out the fact that we both speak Spanish. I speak three languages: Catalan, English, and Spanish. I would consider my Spanish to be the worst. We both spoke Spanish so in her head, we had to know each other. 

We didn’t. And the look of frustration that we gave each other, signaled the next words that came out of her mouth. 

“You guys can speak to each other in Spanish!” she said.

Why? Honestly, I would rather speak to him in English. I’m not very confident with my Spanish. Why is it that the fact that we both originate from Spanish-speaking countries means that we have to speak in Spanish? 

We can speak in Spanish if we want to, but we can also speak in English.

Then she told us why we were there. We had to take an English as a Second Language (ESL) test because of a new law that had been recently passed. This law states that if students live in a household where they are exposed to someone who does not speak English or speaks as a second language, they have to take the test. “Exposed” being loosely defined as simply hearing the language. Students do not have to speak a foreign language to be required to take the test, they just have to be exposed

Although English is my second language, the looks we were all exchanging were from the outrage that this was even an acceptable requirement.  

They didn’t look into our previous classes, our grades, or our credits. If they had, they would have seen that I have been educated in English since the third grade. I can speak, read, and write in English better than in my native language. I have been living in English-speaking countries for almost 10 years.

So I took the test. She made it clear that we must not allow personal emotions to interfere with our final score, as “Being placed in the ESL program would be an incredible disadvantage.” 

On Feb. 26, school board member Vicky Manning tweeted, “VB schools has 300 additional ESL students in the past year. Most are from South America. Our ESL budget has increased by over $1 million in 2 years. Continuing to educate South Americans is not sustainable.” 

Not only is this comment outright racist and discriminatory, but it is also offensive to the bilingual mentality. Yes, there is a large population of students that is in need of aid when it comes to learning English, and that is to be expected. The moment it becomes an excuse for extra funding, unreasonable assumptions, and inaccurate judgment of proficiency, the ESL program loses its credibility and functionality. 

It is ignorant to expect students who have been working hard to reach the level of respect in a place where they are simply seen by their accent, to take a test that refuses to acknowledge that hard work. Students should not be asked to take the test if they have a clear understanding of the language. If they have been speaking English for 10 years. If they have a passing grade in English. If they have taken and passed every statewide test issued in English. Students should not have to take the test based on the assumption that their nationality dictates their understanding of the English language. 

Let me make one thing clear: It is not unsustainable to educate those who need it. Education is not unsustainable. The ESL program is worthy of funding if it is used appropriately. Students needing assistance in English have a right to that aid. So let’s prioritize them. 

Race, nationality, and ethnicity should not be the requirements for this test. If it is purely based on the understanding of language, let the proficiency of the English language be the sole indicator of the necessity for this test.