Struggling With the Dialect

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When I was one

Today, the Teacher Reboot Camp blog celebrates its one year birthday! To commemorate, I started the Children of Immigrants series in an effort to share my personal experiences growing up as a Mexican American. The majority of us will teach immigrants and I am hoping my experiences help shed light on the difficulties these students face. Originally, I wanted to name this post, Yo soy Chicana y mi lengua is ChE (Chicano English). However, I want the focus to be on the various dialects children grow up learning, especially in low-income neighborhoods. As noted in a previous post, these children struggle with achieving academically and often drop out of high school, thereby, continuing the poverty cycle that enslaved their ancestors.

Shelly with Dad & Kim

I was one of those children. We lived in a small house my grandfather built with his own hands, because we could not afford to pay rent. This house was located next to my grandparent’s house that was also built by my grandfather. I was a very happy child who had parents who wanted me to have a better life so this isn’t a sob story. However, I believe it is important to realize that a students’ home environment greatly impacts their learning. Usually, the delinquents most administrators and teachers write off as trouble are the ones who come from these environments. Our house was small. My four sisters and I shared one bed and rats and flying cockroaches were the norm. Lice was common among the students in our school. At night we had to turn off the lights and could not look out the window because there were shootings. I remember a girl actually dying in my neighborhood from a stray bullet. The families across from us lived in the projects, which were publicly funded housing developments for low-income families.

Chicano English (ChE)

In my neighborhood, we didn’t speak Standard American English. I grew up speaking a common dialect spoken in most Mexican American barrios (neighborhoods) around the United States, Chicano English (ChE) (Fromkin, Hyams, & Rodman, 2003). One of the most notable characteristics of ChE includes pronunciation errors, such as speakers rolling their “r’s,” mispronouncing the vowel “i” as a strong “e” sound, and mispronouncing “sh” as “ch” (Goldstein, Fabiano, & Iglesias, 2004). Furthermore, in Latin English a schwa is inserted before initial consonant clusters, consonants are devoiced, word-final consonant clusters are simplified, past-tense suffixes are deleted, the third-person singular agreement is deleted, different syllables are stressed, /t/ is substituted for /T/, and /d/ is substituted for /D/.

I hadn’t realized my English was different until the second grade. My father wanted to make sure we received the best education and knew the best schools were in the richest neighborhoods. Therefore, he faked our mailing address to get us into a school in a wealthy neighborhood. At this school, I quickly realized I was different. My friends were not all the same skin color. In my neighborhood, 99% of the population was Hispanic. The new school was more culturally diverse. When I started at the school my new friends quickly noticed by pronunciation problems and high pitch voice. The joke was for my friends to ask me to say “chicken” and “chair” knowing I would say “sheakin” and “sher.” I was often corrected for saying sangwitch and liberry. Also, I tended to spit when speaking. I remember feeling as if I didn’t measure up. I was very insecure in school and stuck to reading zealously, writing, and studying. I learned how to keep my friends at a distance and not share much about myself.

Learning to Speak

Sometimes I marvel at how far I have come. I regularly present and feel quite comfortable giving presentations. I volunteer for them, but there was a point in my life where I hated public speaking. I was always picked on for my Michael Jackson voice, my accent, or my mispronunciation of words. In high school, my father forced me to run for class president. Somehow, I won. I attended a magnet school, therefore, I often had to give speeches to the top business leaders in my city to convince them to fund our school programs. I learned how to speak properly with the help of my incredible Speech and Debate coach. She helped me enunciate by having me say my briefs with a fat marker in my mouth. This helped me to stop spitting. She helped me with my pronunciation, my pitch, my tone and my accent. She recorded me giving my presentations standing in a trash bin with my hands behind my back. When I memorized my presentations, she had me practice my gestures in a mirror. Later, I joined Toastmasters and learned more.

The Educator I Want to Be…

A great part of my growth and my personal beliefs is owed to the teachers and mentors who cared enough to help me overcome my insecurities of where I came from. They didn’t discount me because I didn’t speak English correctly. They made me believe in myself when I did not. I want to be that kind of educator to my students. I want to make them believe in themselves and notice that they can overcome the obstacles in their lives.

Sometimes we do not realize how much our students struggle due to the dialect they grew up speaking. Not only immigrants, but many students worldwide come from neighborhoods where various dialects are spoken. In Britain, people speak Cockney. In southern Germany, where I currently reside, people speak Schwäbisch. Many of the people who speak these various dialects are stereotyped as not having a proper education. Often, jokes are made about the people who speak these dialects. If a student does not learn how to speak standard English then they may not receive the same salary scale or may have a difficult time finding jobs. Most students do not have parents like mine who made us transfer to a better school. These children grow up speaking a dialect and are rarely given the help they need to overcome the differences. I believe in the notion of English as a Lingua Franca. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world if a student does not speak English a specific way then the student is stereotyped and prevented from many opportunities. How do we help these children?


Fromkin, V., Hyams, N., & Rodman, R. (2003). An introduction to language (7th ed.) Boston, MA: Thomson, Inc.
Goldstein, B., Fabiano, L., & Iglesias, A. (2004, January). Spontaneous and imitated productions in Spanish-speaking children with phonological disorders. Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools, 35(1), 5-15.


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Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, an international speaker/consultant, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning with EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, and Learning to Go. She has trained teachers and taught English language learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert by organizations, like the US Embassy, UNESCO Bangkok, Cultura Inglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, ISTEK Turkey, and Venezuela TESOL. She has been recognized by several organizations and publications as a leader in the movement of teacher driven professional development as the founder and organizer of various online conferences, Twitter chats, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Two of the projects she co-organized were shortlisted for ELTons, #ELTChat and the Virtual Round Table Language and Technology online conference. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, and named as one of the 10 Most Influential People in EdTech by Tech & Learning. Her greatest joy is being the mother of baby Savannah and Rosco the pug. Shelly has an Honors BA in English with a Minor in Communication and a specialization in Electronic Media from UTSA, a Masters in Curriculum Instruction ESL from the University of Phoenix, and a CELTA from CELT Athens. She regularly shares her tips for effective technology integration via Twitter (@ShellTerrell),, and on her blog,, which has won several awards and recognitions as one of the top ESL, Edtech and Elearning blogs. Find over 400 of her slide presentations at


  1. Happy birthday to Teacher Reboot Camp! It’s become one of my main sources of knowledge and inspiration.

  2. Thank you for sharing your journey. Your words and and images brought back those experiences that helped shape who I am today and why I said “yes” to my career pathway as a district-wide curriculum director for kids! I, too, grew up in the projects,struggled with English,asked to change my name from “Alicia” to “Alice,” tracked in schools with no option to attend higher education. But somehow we use these collective experiences to shape who we are today and find ways to make a difference in our day-to-day work with adults and children — never forgetting our roots/cultura!
    Once again, sincere thanks for sharing your learning and talents with the world. You are making a difference!

  3. It must have been a great experience to study with a speech and debate coach and to follow up with Toastmasters… and poetry readings! Great stuff. Happy blog birthday, and best wishes on your journey!

  4. Wonderful, inspirational post, Shelly – looking forward to reading more!

    Conratulations on your blog birthday, too!

    Hard to believe it’s only been a year… 🙂

  5. Dear Shelly,
    This is a wonderful article.
    Once again thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Thanks for your enthusiasm and sincerity. You are an endless inspiration and support for us. I’m so hapy that I had the chance to meet you.
    I wish a very hay birthday to this blog that keeps us informed, linked and inspired.

  6. Hi Shelly!

    The first time I heard the word ‘Chicano’ was during my 3rd year of university. There was a guy there writing his PhD thesis about the Chicano Theatre and he invited an actor called Ruben Gonzales to tell us more about it. It was fascinating! So different from what we would normally find in the literary canon!

    Thanks a lot for sharing your story and giving us the opportunity to get to know your world better 🙂

    And Happy Birthday to teacher Reboot Camp!

  7. Thank you for this inspiring entry. Everyone, even so-called ‘native speakers,’ has an accent when they talk, but so often people only notice accents that are somehow different from the norm. I’m glad that you were around teachers and family members in childhood that taught you to value your own heritage and way of speaking.

  8. Thank you, Shelly, for sharing your story and your perspective. I find several things remarkable about your story –
    1) the way the adults in your life challenged you and weren’t content with the status quo
    2) the way you persevered through those challenges
    3) the passion you have to give back and pay it forward

    Language is important in the business/professional world, but so is the community and culture that develops in those neighborhoods with shared dialects. I think it is important that we teach students to speak properly, but I think we should also express that it is perfectly okay to “code-switch” to meet the needs of your current audience. Any thoughts?

    Written with a think southern-American accent :0) -Philip

  9. Hi Shelly

    What a wonderful inspirational post written by one of the most passionate educators I know. Thank you so much for sharing your story here.

    I wish Teacher Reboot Camp a very happy 1st blog anniversary. You have achieved so much in a short period of time and your sharing of knowledge is an incredible gift to us all.

  10. Your story makes the person you are today…infact, you have inspired me to try harder for something I attemted a year ago. Last year, I wanted to set up an English class in my village school for English lessons for our immigrant population..mainly Indians, Afghans and Pakistanis…free Greek classes were introduced but I knew the local immigrants wanted English in order to leave Greece. Can you believe the local parents complained ‘those immigrants’ shouldn’t be in our kids classrooms or using the toilet facilities…we cant pay a cleanner to ‘get rid of their smell’ and so the Greek classes stopped and I didn’t have a chance with the English! You have inspired me to go to the local council and ask for a room to teach..if I can help, one child or an adult, the same way your speech and debate coach guided you..then it’s worth it! You are a remarkable person, and there are kids here from immigrant backgrounds, who I can help ! Thank you with passion! xxx

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