Zimmerman Trial: Understanding Rachel Jeantel
Jeantel grew up learning Creole and Spanish
Update: The Huffiington Post is reporting that Jeantel said thatbTrayvon was one of the only boys who didn't make fun of her speech.
So, I watched with interest the crucifixion of Rachel Jeantel, by black and white alike, for her non-standard English. I even had people comment about her language. It seems that Jeantel was born in Florida, but her mother is Dominican and her father is Haitian. That means that Jeantel would have been exposed to Creole, Spanish, and probably French as a small child, but probably very little English.
The problem is one I see every day in my job as an English Language Development Teacher (ELD) or ESL as they use to call it. It is a problem of a child born to immigrant parents here, but whose first language is not English. In my research, it is clear that these students start out with a clear disadvantage because their parents probably do not read or write English. We know that kids who are read to in any language become readers. Most poor immigrants are illiterate in their own language.
These kids also, generally, start school later, age 6 rather than 31/2 or four. They do pretty well in Elementary school, but then for some strange reason their language skills become frozen in middle school. Without special intervention, many of these students become frustrated with school and leave because they struggle to read.
Judging Jeantel by her non-standard English is not like judging Arnold Schwarzenegger. When learning a language, reading and writing translate much quicker than speaking. Hence, if a person cannot read or write well in their first language, they will struggle with learning a new one. Yes, most are eventually able to communicate, but they do so in broken code. If you put a book in front of them or ask them to write a note in English, they cannot. They are not fluent. In contrast to that, all of us know a professional who speaks broken English but reads and writes perfectly.
The fact is that few Americans grow up speaking Standard English. As a teacher, I see Samoan English, Hispanic English, Black English, Asian English, Middle Eastern English, and poor White English. Some of my students are almost mute when they come to my class. Couple that with the fact that most Americans only read fluently at a 5th grade level and then you see the problem.
Poor African Americans are usually the most criticized in society, but the issues they face are the same and language development in poor whites lags just as much. In the Jeantel case, this was exhibited by both black and whites on social media. I teach students like Jeantel that there are two languages they must master: the language of the streets, and the language of money.
Much of the criticism of Jeantel, even by blacks, was based on racial codes that have existed for centuries. Lack of proper English is seen as being stupid. Being able to speak in English properly is a double edged sword for some blacks. You are criticized for not being black enough or praised as being articulate. Jeantel was not articulate enough for some. And yes, she probably is a functional illiterate. Many people you know are.
The fact is that Jeantel is 19, and had the weight of a trial on her young shoulders. She has a lot of growing to do. She was understandable and we should stop judging people on their language skills because we never know where they came from.
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