Osaka YMCA
International School

How I Learned English as a Kid

Classroom Photo
Picture of Isidro Montes

Isidro Montes

Isidro Montes (Mr. Isi) was born in Los Angeles but grew up in a Mexican household. His parents immigrated to the USA in their mid 20s to raise a family. Being a second language learner taught him a lot about the struggles students face with cultural diversity and learning English.

How do you “immerse” your child in English? As an educator I am tempted to post and quote research from different sources but I feel disconnected when I do that. Speaking from my own experiences and struggles is more meaningful. Immersion requires effort from the child and the parents. While it may seem overwhelming at first, it holds tremendous benefits.

How I Learned English as a Kid

I still remember the day like it was yesterday. My friend Juan and I were sitting on the carpet in our class library talking about how his dad had been saving money from his ice cream cart business to buy him a new Nintendo Entertainment System. I knew much of it was fabricated, as many of us came from poor backgrounds and neighborhoods. But hey, we were 8 years old at the time. Suddenly, our assistant teacher Ms. Conchita interrupted us. “Isidro, you are going to be on the other side from today.”

What is this “other side” you say? Well, at the time, it was how our school divided the ESL (English as Second Language) learners. At different times throughout the day, our classroom was divided by a massive grey partition, or the “Mexican border” as we would joke amongst ourselves. On one side, continuous instruction in English; On the other, instruction in Spanish.

Mr. Isi in elementary school.
The Border.

As I got up and rounded the corner from the “border” I could see everyone on the English speaking side look at me with surprise and confusion. Sure, I knew many of them as they were part of my class but I felt a bit out of my realm. I never truly took the time to converse with these classmates as English was something I was not comfortable with. I took a seat next to a boy named Jonathan, and did my best to pay attention. As scared as I was, I felt accomplished. I had finally made the jump to “normal” instruction. For 3 years, I was part of the ESL program. Speaking nothing but Spanish and making Spanish speaking friends.

As I started to immerse myself in the language, slowly but surely my English began to improve. The opportunities to interact with the language were now plentiful and I started to make more English speaking friends. Furthermore, I started to understand the things I was really into. Garfield comics were funny now that I could read the dialogue. My favorite character from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Raphael, was slowly becoming less likeable as I started to understand the things he said. He was kind of a jerk. Of course, my greatest accomplishment at the time was being able to recite the lyrics to my favorite song ‘Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)’ by C+C Music Factory. Within a year of “crossing the border”, I was practically fluent.

Why did I decide to share this story? Well, parents of EAL students ask us these questions all the time. “How does my child get better at English? How do they improve?” As teachers, we of course recommend reading more often, watching movies/shows in English, and sometimes receiving external support. Every time I give these suggestions I look back at how I learned English. While I had the benefit of living in an English speaking country, my environment was far from it. At home I spoke Spanish, my friends only spoke Spanish and there were few opportunities to use my minimal English language skills at school, as instruction was mostly in Spanish. The answer I would like to give but requires a deeper understanding is immersion.
It wasn’t until I fully immersed myself in the English language that I started to flourish. That boy named Jonathan that I sat next to ended up becoming my best friend. He sort of took me under his wing, helping me with things I didn’t understand and talking to me even though I could barely communicate. We hit it off pretty quickly, finding things to talk about such as Nintendo games, WWF wrestling and Saturday morning cartoons. He really dug my homemade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pants that my mom had made. It displayed a 6 inch Raphael patch on the front that was sewn on to cover up the huge gash I’d made in the jeans 8 months prior trying to jump over a chain link fence.
It is a hard concept to explain to parents. How do you “immerse” your child in English? As an educator I am tempted to post and quote research from different sources but I feel disconnected when I do that. Speaking from my own experiences and struggles is more meaningful. Immersion requires effort from the child and the parents. While it may seem overwhelming at first, it holds tremendous benefits. Students at OYIS have a huge advantage in our community. There are fluent English speakers everywhere. Encouraging your child to make English speaking friends is an aspect that is often overlooked. Furthermore, the support of these relationships from the parents/caregivers is just as important. Having friends spend time together outside of school is crucial as communication through fun and play subconsciously encourages the use of English in a non-academic environment. Parents can help set up activities for friends to spend time together such as going to the movies, visiting their favorite restaurants, playing in the park or even just casual hangouts. Concurrently, you are building the child’s open-mindedness and cultural awareness.
My mother was pretty strict with me growing up and she never let me visit my friends’ house but she didn’t mind if they came to mine. I still remember the night Jonathan visited my house for the first time. My mom was making cocido for dinner. Cocido is a vegetable and beef stew that we eat in Mexico and I absolutely hated it when I was a kid. I was embarrassed that we were serving this when my best friend was here. To my surprise, Jonathan finished his bowl in about 3 minutes and asked for a refill. He turned to me and said, “Dude, this is so good! You are lucky you get to eat this often.” After that, he didn’t shut up about my mom’s cocido. He kept asking when he could come over again and try more food.

From my experience as a homeroom teacher, I have observed that often students from the same cultural or language background tend to stick together. While all friendships are great, the EAL learners who stray from the norm and make multi-cultural relationships often improve their English language skills faster. They immerse themselves in the language. At an international school like OYIS, having the ability to immerse your child is a rare opportunity in Japan. Take advantage of it while you can.

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