Just over a year ago, I was asked to visit a kindergarten classroom on the Northwest side of Chicago. The purpose of my visit was to join the class and to pay extra attention to two twin sisters from Burundi. The girls were a source of constant stress for their compassionate teacher, Miss Chavez, who suspected that they were utterly lost during instruction. She reached out to the community center where I worked, who sent out a call for anyone who could talk to the twins in Swahili or Rundi–the languages spoken by their family at home–and assess how much they understood.
I arrived just after class began, and the teacher introduced me to the throng of five-year olds. They stared nervously for a moment and then quickly forgot I existed while they played matching games and colored with crayons. With my mission in mind, I sat down near one of the twins, Rita, who was busy building a house with Legos.
“What’s your name?” I asked her in my best attempt at Rundi.
Confused, she made eye contact, then returned to her miniature construction project.
“My name is Timothy,” I said in Swahili, “and what’s your name?”
“…Rita,” she mumbled.
Her classmate snorted and shouted at me in the only volume tiny humans know, “She doesn’t speak Spanish! We aren’t the Spanish class!” She giggled, foolish adult that I was.
I asked Rita a few more questions, but received no answers. Her classmate continued to laugh at me, and Rita chattered at her in what might have been Rundi. I didn’t understand anything she said.
Later in “pull-out” time, I followed Rita and her sister, Marethina, to a cramped room down the hall. There, kindergarteners whose first language wasn’t English were gathered, made to sing rhymes, and pronounce words like ‘bed’ and ‘bad.’ The teacher, who sat on a blue exercise ball as large as three Ritas, began the lesson by reminding her little learners that they must behave; or else have their names written on the board next to chalk-drawn, frowny faces. Rita and Marethina were not listening, heatedly whispering to each other, instead. The teacher separated them, one on each side of her exercise ball. The girls accepted this arrangement calmly. But, the calm did not last long.
Exercise-ball-teacher started a rhythmic song and prompted Marethina to join in, calling her “Martha.” Rita cackled, and Marethina said “NO!” her first English word of the morning.
The teacher stopped singing immediately and scowled at the twins. She reminded them the rules of behaving and threatened them with frowny faces on the chalkboard. Then, she said “Martha” again, and Rita fell onto the floor with laughter. Not understanding the problem, the teacher instead blamed the children. She turned toward the board and wrote Rita, then Mar-, before asking me over her shoulder, “How do you spell her name?”
Rita shrieked, “Ma-re-thiii-naaa!”
That was the nail in the coffin. Two lines and one devastating semicircle appeared beside Rita’s name on the board: the dreaded frowny face.
As I joined the kindergarteners’ single file line and returned to the main classroom, the flustered pull-out teacher told me, “They just don’t understand!”
Later, I sat with the twins and chatted with them while they colored Halloween themed characters. Now that I had been with them all morning, they were used to my presence, and they didn’t mind telling me the names of the colors and demanding crayons from my side of the table. Sometimes they asked for the njano crayon, and sometimes they preferred ‘yellow.’ In describing their family, a brother was a ‘brotha’ but a sister was a dada. Dad’s favorite color was jani, but mama‘s was red. These little girls had no time for differentiating between languages. To them, words were words, and if you couldn’t keep up that was your problem.
To her credit, Miss Chavez truly cared about the twins. With tears in her eyes, she explained her fear that the girls would be overwhelmed in first grade the following year. The twins were not even trying to learn English, and she blamed herself for this.
I shook my head.
The truth was that Rita and Marethina were not using English, but they weren’t using Swahili or Rundi either. Rather, they were using all the languages and in doing so none of the languages. Their mental toolboxes were a mess of Rundi, Swahili, English, and the nonsense twin talk unique to their world with space for just two. Thanks to friends and neighbors, there was probably some Spanish, Arabic, and Polish in there, too. Naturally, the result was a masterpiece of human sound, and a truly unique way to describe the world.
By now, the twins are in first grade and they might reserve twin talk for home and English for grumpy pull-out teachers. They have probably noticed that one set of words works with classmates and another set works with siblings. At six years of age, their vocabulary spans at least three languages. As for the rest of us, maybe exercise-ball-teacher would have done better to refer to us when she said, “They just don’t understand!“