[lg policy] Language Learning Twice as Hard for Mayan Student

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 8 16:23:17 UTC 2012

Language Learning Twice as Hard for Mayan Student
By Lesli A. Maxwell

It's taken less than five years for Luis Mis Mis to learn two
languages—English and Spanish—since arriving in San Francisco from his
birthplace in the state of Yucatán in Mexico. A Mayan Indian, Mis Mis, who
is 18, is a bit atypical compared with most students of Mexican heritage
attending school in the United States. He was raised mostly by his
grandparents, who spoke only the indigenous Mayan language. As a child, he
rarely attended school and spent much of his time helping his grandfather
work on the family's small farm.

In 2008, when his mother came back to Yucatán to bring him and his siblings
to join her and their father in California, he had not seen his parents for
nearly 10 years. In the United States, he landed at Newcomer High School in
San Francisco, one of the nation's oldest secondary schools for new
immigrants. It has since closed down because of budget cuts. Speaking only
a little Spanish at the time, Mis Mis struggled to communicate with
teachers and fellow students, none of whom spoke Mayan.

After seven months at Newcomer High, where he learned Spanish from his
peers and took English-as-a-second language courses, Mis Mis transferred to
Abraham Lincoln High School, a large, comprehensive San Francisco high
school where a majority of students are Asian-American. He continued in ESL
courses for another year and a half at Lincoln and was then reclassified as
proficient in English—a remarkably short amount of time for an older
immigrant student to learn the language.

Still, he needed a fifth year of high school to earn enough credits to
graduate. But with the support of the administration at Lincoln High and
the advocacy of Spanish teacher Suzann Baldwin and environmental science
teacher Vanessa Carter, Mis Mis has been able to stay at Lincoln for an
extra year. Without their assurances that he could stay another year, Mis
Mis says he would have dropped out and sought a General Educational
Development certificate, or GED.

Last year, he earned a 4.0 grade point average; this year, he's enrolled in
Advanced Placement Spanish with students who are all native speakers.

Mis Mis has never told his parents about his successes in school and has
only shared a little with them about his ambitions: college and a career as
a musician or an environmental science teacher. This spring, he's been
working with Baldwin, the Spanish teacher, to figure out how he can pay to
attend a four-year college in California.

"I'm not sure they would understand," he says of his parents. "They work
really hard and probably want me to do the same thing to help out."

Mis Mis spends all of his time outside of school "playing guitar, reading,
writing, and working on my own to study and improve," he says. "I want to
have a good life."



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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