Interview with an English Language Learner

ellBeing exposed to a new culture and language can be scary, overwhelming, and frustrating; however, it is also beautiful once you begin to embark on the journey. I was honored to interview a beautiful young lady by the name of “O”, who is currently in the seventh grade. Her family is originally from Gambia, Africa; she was born in the United States, but only lived here for two short years, before going back to her mother’s native home. It was not until she came back to the United States at the age of seven did she begin the journey of learning the English language. “O,” said that her mother decided to come back to the U.S. for better education and job opportunities. Her journey of frustration and reflection really showed me a different side of what it means to embark on a new culture and journey.

The Experience

“O” shared her experience(s) on learning how to fluently speak English. We started off discussing how she came to the U.S., and I found that she was born in the U.S. and relocated back to Gambia prior to learning how to speak English. Her story of how she came to learn our language is beyond impressive and remarkable. Her native language is Wolof. Before entering second grade, she told me that she would watch television for days, as she watched different shows she began to mimic the words that she would hear. It was not long before she became frustrated with not being able to understand what these words meant; here is where things get remarkable, this young child, only seven years old was encouraged through her frustrations to learn to speak these words and find out what these words meant. The fact that she allowed herself to really focus and zoom in on finding out what words meant without being told to do so was impressive within itself. She officially began to learn the language on an academic level in second grade through a program called ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages). She spoke of her frustrations in this class; her frustration came from not having any students that spoke her language, and most students spoke Spanish. She said that she grasped words quicker than the other students, and became frustrated when she had to learn at a slower pace. She also did not like the concept of the speaking test, because she speaks fast; when it comes time to her having to do her speaking exams, she becomes shy, which interferes with her testing scores causing her to retake the test. I have not personally experienced this level of shyness, because she is so vibrant and easy going. Once she became comfortable around me, she spoke more. Overall, her most difficult part of the journey has been not getting words right the first time she is introduced to them. I can see why this may be frustrating for her, especially being that she encouraged herself to learn the language simply by looking at television and wanting to understand what was going on in the show(s).

The Culture Shock

            “O” and I spoke briefly about aspects of U.S. society and culture; she stated that there were not many aspects of our culture that was difficult to understand; however, it was her culture and the misconception that we have in the U.S. that was difficult for her to wrap her mind around. She spoke that Gambia, Africa was beautiful, and many of the stereotypes that we see in the media is not a reflection of her country. She mentioned how many media outlets and people have the perception that there is a clear majority of people experiencing homelessness in Gambia or other places in Africa; however, there are more homeless people here than in Gambia.


            As an educator, I got to experience for a short moment what some of my students who are not native in the English language experience, both academically and culturally. I was so amazed at the drive this young child had/has and determination to learn two cultures and languages at such a young age. It is important that we take time to truly understand what goes on in the minds of people who are trying to learn English, but may run in to obstacles; conversations such as the one “O” and I had can help to enhance ELL programs for our students or even make adjustments to meet the needs of our students.

Published by Andrea Pickens and Associates, LLC

Greetings: My name is Andrea S. Pickens; I have several years of experience in education and youth development all of which include teaching and leading youth in under-resourced and economically disadvantaged communities. I believe that it is critical to the academic and over success of our youth to have proper academic and social-emotional support. This support is often found in schools and after-school programs that intervene by providing tutoring/enrichment services and are equipped with effective teachers and leaders. My belief is that each child can learn, but not all children learn the same; diversity and equity is crucial to youth development. It is my mission as an educator, entrepreneur, and servant-leader to equip and empower others in youth development and education to reach our youth beyond the secondary classroom. Yours in Education, Andrea S. Pickens, M.Ed

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