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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