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When Trilingual Isn't Enough

Leona Hiraoka, Editor-in-Chief

My friend Gerry, a Boston-area teacher for more than 25 years, got his bachelor's degree in Russian. While teaching, he became a big fan of Harvard extension courses, and he went on to become fluent in French and Spanish. This love for language made him an adaptable communicator in his increasingly diverse classroom. Then, at the beginning of one school year, he found out he was getting three students who didn't speak English. Their native language? Vietnamese.  It was a language no school staffer spoke, and no resources or support were going to accompany these children. 

Gerry immediately went in search of material so that he could at least welcome them. But it was the first time I'd seen him frustrated over language. He realized, in the end, that it didn't matter how many languages he knew. There would always be some child adrift in a different, native tongue until he could figure out how to anchor them. 

This was back in the 1980s. Since then, American classrooms have grown all the more diverse. As Mary Ellen Flannery reports in this month's cover story (page 24), U.S. schoolchildren bring with them an astounding 425 native languages (and counting!) to the classroom. But as her story notes, "Language Can't Be a Barrier." So read on for realistic ways you can reach students who speak languages you don't. 

We'd like to know the issues you've faced around languages at school. If you've found solutions, we'd like to hear about those, too. E-mail us at .  For more information on what educators are doing for English-language learners, check out our ELL Web resources section.

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