Bilingual classmates help newcomers learn

By Dulce Flores, Jackie Larios Dominguez and Donna Diaz

 On the first day of school, 16-year-old Jayro Armas Nunez was anxious. Everyone in his orchestra class was speaking English, and he couldn’t understand anything. 

On the other side of the school, freshman Carlos Serrano-Coria was busy getting used to his English I class while also translating everything the teacher said to Spanish for a classmate sitting next to him. 

Armas Nunez and Serrano-Coria are two of many students navigating language barriers at Riverside. This challenge isn’t new, but neither Riverside nor Durham Public Schools have not yet solved this problem. 

Armas Nunez was born in North Carolina but moved back to his parents’ country, which is Mexico, at a young age. Nunez lived in Mexico until he was 15, then he moved back to the USA. He has basically spoken Spanish his whole life. 

“It has cost my family a lot to learn to speak English,” Armas Nunez said.  “Whenever we go to stores or go buy food outside it’s hard for us to communicate.”         

When he heard everyone around him speaking English on the first day of school he worried he get left out. But classmates were quick to help.

“My friends help me out a lot with English,” he said. 

There are faculty members supporting him, too. Armas Nunez is one of 362 Riverside students who are new to the US. T“It is extremely important at the beginning of the school year to help the students who are just coming in,” said ESL department chair Julie Farkas. 

Farkas is one of six Riverside ESL teachers. Her department supports students like Armas Nunez by providing language support as well as school information.

When people think about ESL students, the first thing that they think is Spanish speaking individuals but that’s not the only case, many ESL students are from many other different countries and speak different languages. Often a misconception about ESL students that they all speak Spanish. 

“No one speaks their language. They don’t understand what is going on, Farkas said. “A lot of the students who come here from other countries, they’ve never seen a school that’s like this one. They don’t understand how the bells work, how the classes work…it’s just so many students and so many teachers.

In addition to classwork, students also need to learn how the school operates. ESL teachers help with everything from school work to finding where their classes are and, most importantly, getting them to graduate high school. 

“I try very hard in the very beginning of the school year to make sure that all of the newcomer ESL students have ESL support as soon as possible,” Farkas said. “Ideally, from day one, they’ll be in a class with someone like me to translate, to say ‘Hello,’ teach them some English words so that they know how to go to the bathroom. We explain their schedule to them…basic things so that they get started and they’re not as frightened or overwhelmed.”

But with so many students and so few teachers, kids like Serrano-Coria end up providing informal support.

“Sometimes I feel like I need to do it for them because I don’t, who’s actually going to help them?” he said. 

Three weeks into the second quarter, Armas Nunez is still in orchestra class. 

´I am understanding English much better now thanks to all my friends,” he said. “It’s still hard to talk the language but I know I´ll get there little by little.”

The classmate Serrano-Coria was interpreting for moved from his English I to a sheltered ESL class a few weeks into the school year.

“I think they are getting more help now than they were before,” he said. “They can join into learning more things…[including] English.” 


Graphic by Tatiana Robinson

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