"I look at dialects of students who speak non-standard varieties of English and the challenges they face as they acquire standard American English in school."
When Shondel Nero was pursuing her doctorate, she noticed a young man from her country Guyana who was placed in the ESL class she was teaching at the time. "How, I wondered, does someone from an English-speaking country end up in an ESL class?"
That's where her cutting-edge research began."I look at dialects of students who speak non-standard varieties of English and the challenges they face as they acquire standard American English in school."Nero has been researching the language and literacy needs of Anglophone Caribbean students for the past sixteen years, mostly at the college level.
Now she is turning her attention to the language and literacy needs of Anglo-Caribbean students in middle schools in NYC. "This population presents a linguistic challenge for teachers because they identify as English speaking, yet many speak what is called Creole English, which is often hard for teachers here to understand. Consequently, these kids are sometimes placed in ESL classes - even though this doesn't serve their needs."
To better understand these challenges, Nero recently took a group of 18 ESL teachers from New York City to the Dominican Republic for language and cultural immersion. "I thought it would be interesting for these teachers to see what it felt like to learn a second language themselves." With support from a Fulbright grant, Nero and the ESL teachers spent four weeks learning Spanish six hours a day. "The teachers were able to walk in their students' shoes for the first time. They saw how truly difficult it is to learn a second language to the degree that you need to succeed in school in that language. When they returned to New York, they were able to teach their students in a way that was much more informed."
What Nero is finding does serve these students' needs is teachers who better understand cultural differences. "We need more teacher training that systematically looks at what is considered language and literacy," she says. "We also need to learn how to tailor teacher training to deal with the unique population of speakers of other kinds of English." Nero wants her research in this area to raise awareness around this issue, help develop some practical approaches to working with this population, and affect policy "so that different varieties of English are recognized as legitimate varieties and not just bad English."
Nero hopes to work with a doctoral research assistant on this project to help with the data collection and field observation. "My students are international, which gives them a global perspective I appreciate." Nero, of course, shares this global perspective, and it was at the heart of her keynote address at this year's Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention.
"I talked about the concept of languages without borders. Spanish is not contained in Spain. English is not contained in the US or England. The immigrant movement is taking languages all around the world, and people move with their language. Then again, some people never learn their heritage language. You can have someone who's Chinese who grew up in Brooklyn who doesn't speak a word of Chinese. I just met someone who grew up in Peru whose first language is Japanese. Today people can look like anything and speak anything and be from anywhere. The future of language teaching will have to take into account all of these complications."