Manuel Rodriguez is a 7th Grade student with a very limited command of English. Originally from Brazil, his first language (L1) is Portuguese, and coming from an upper-middle class family that provided him with a private school education, he is very proficient in it. His father Cesar is a university professor who will be working for four years in the U.S. As part of a United Nations exchange program, while his mother Nona and seven-year-old sister Anna are also living here. In interviewing his parents, it is clear that they are concerned that he is having great difficulty adjusting to the new education system and to life as an immigrant in general, not least because of his language difficulties. During the eight months they have been in this country, Manuel has become sullen, withdrawn and depressed, which is not his normal personality at all, and part of the reason is that he does not understand what is going on in school and is unable to communicate with teachers or peers. In addition to interviewing his family and teacher, I was able to interview and observe Manuel in three different situations, the first time in the classroom and then two more one-on-one interviews in another room. I observed his interactions in class, which were very limited, and his understanding of texts and written and spoken English, which I would classify at the upper-beginner/low intermediate level, with his reading skills slightly better than oral and written communication. He is receiving almost all of his education in a second language, but I would estimate that he only understands about 10-20% of the written and spoken English in this classroom environment.
In interviewing Manuel's parents, it was clear that they came from a highly privileged and educated background, and were well able to communicate in English. As a university professor in a highly technical field, Cesar Rodriquez must understand English to keep up with the latest developments, and he gave the distinct impression of being very demanding with his son, expecting him to excel in academics as he had. He is the dominating influence in the household and generally expects his wife and children to submit to his authority, so in the interviews they generally agreed with everything he said. Cesar also stated that he had grave doubts about the quality of the U.S. education system and perhaps might move his son to another school if he did not show sufficient progress. Although he is clearly concerned about his son, the type of pressure he applies to him may be exacerbating the situation. In interviewing his mother alone, I found that Manuel was very outgoing and active in academics, sports and social life in Brazil, where his grades were excellent. He has told her that he hates living in the U.S. And would prefer to be sent home to live with relatives, although his father is unwilling to do this. She knows that Manuel is unable to understand English at an adequate level to be in a regular classroom and thinks he needs a remedial English course, language tutoring or some type of specialized, bilingual class. In addition, Manuel is from an education system that emphasizes drill and rote memorization, which is of course quite different from the standard pedagogical methods in most North American public schools.
I also had short discussion with Manuel's sister Anna who is in the second grade at Manuel's school. Anna essentially repeated everything that Manuel and his parents had already told me. He was far more comfortable speaking Portuguese and only used this language at home. Manuel strongly disliked school activities and preferred listening to music, watching television, playing baseball or computer games to any type of academic work, which upset his father greatly. Anna mentioned that he could be funny at times, but could also be mean when he picked on her. I also noted that her English language skills were basically on the same level as her brother's, and Cesar and Nina confirmed for me that both had begun their English education at the same time before the family departed for the United States.
Manuel's ability to communicate in English outside of limited use of the present tense is very restricted. He feels that he is a disappointment to his father, and worries that he has no friends…