ELL provides close-knit community

Like any other student, freshman Nicole Palma loves to laugh, have a good time and hang out with her friends. Like many other students, she knows both English and Spanish. But unlike the majority of the student body, Palma is an ELL student, a student who takes English as a second language.

Born and raised in Juticalpa, Honduras, Palma moved to Brookline with her older brother, sophomore Jose Palma, in December 2010. She said that when she started school at Runkle School in February 2012 it was difficult for her.

“I felt really strange,” Palma said. “Everyone was talking in English and I didn’t understand anything because in my country I didn’t study English, so when people said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ I just said, ‘Hi,’ because I didn’t know anything else.”

Palma began learning English from a Bolivian friend she made. She said although grammar has been the most difficult to learn, pronunciation and spelling are most frustrating.

“Pronunciation is very different in Spanish,” Palma said. “In Spanish, you see the words and it’s spelled exactly how you say it, and in English, some words have some pronunciation or another and they have different spellings.”

While getting down to the nitty-gritty of the English language has been hard, Palma said that speaking as a second language has also proved challenging. Although she has adapted to learning in her beginner modern and jazz dance class by observing and copying other students, Palma said that communication in her other mainstream classes, such as geometry, isn’t so easy.

“It’s hard for me to speak to other people who are not in ELL or international,” Palma said. “The people don’t like to talk with us. Maybe they think, ‘They don’t know a lot of English. They don’t know how to talk with us.’ I don’t know.”

Palma said that American students seem to think that the ELL students don’t speak any English whatsoever. Contrary to that belief, Palma said that she and her classmates are actually talkative and can easily communicate with each other despite their imperfect English.

“We can say hi and talk,” Palma said. “We have the same level of English. Sometimes we don’t know the words, so we just say, ‘Don’t know how to say it … OK! Don’t talk about that!’”

Palma said that there are times when ELL students try approaching American students, to interact and communicate. Recalling a time where she attempted to do so, Palma said she was not met with a kind response.

“I had a really bad experience when I tried to speak in English,” Palma said. “They were all Americans and they laughed at me. It’s hard. I was like, OK, don’t cry, it’s OK.’ Then I didn’t want to speak again.”

According to ELL I and U.S. history teacher Katya Babitskaya, although the ELL program tries to design projects and offer support to help its students transition into the mainstream and interact with the American students, there are still difficulties on the social level.

“As they acquire more English, they branch out to be among the American students,” Babitskaya said. “It is a transition for them to get beyond the ELL program. Sometimes it’s difficult to do because their English is still not at the level of the American students, or they are shy and they can’t make friends as easily as they did in their old country.”

Despite the difficulties ELL students may face in regular classes, they know they can count on the ELL community for continuous and constant support.

According to Palma’s classmate and good friend sophomore Gresa Spahija, who moved from Albania, the ELL students help each other out whenever they can, which creates a sense of unity and understanding.

“When I came for the first time, I did not understand English well,” Spahija said. “Nicole helped me with some words I didn’t understand and after school she stayed and talked. When I don’t understand, I ask Nicole or somebody else in ELL and they help me. Now I understand English more. ”

Babitskaya said that the ELL class is offered as an academic class, but has come to teach so much more.

“It’s not just academic,” Babitskaya said. “It’s everything else, like how to make friends, how to communicate with others. It’s also introducing them to the environment and the American culture.”

Palma said that she enjoys being around the other ELL students outside of class. They hang out and spend a lot of time having fun together. To her, it’s become more than just a class; it’s a close-knit, supportive family.

“My favorite class is ELL,” Palma said. “I think it’s because we’re learning English as a second language, so we have the same mistakes, and we laugh at each other. We are international, so sometimes people don’t want to talk with us. It’s hard at first, but it gets better.”

Pearl Choi can be contacted at [email protected]