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Tearing Down the Language Barrier

pbernal's picture

Tearing Down the Language Barrier

Every environment, whether it is in the city, your home, or the outdoors, has obstacles to tear down and work through. We are not a perfect community and in a way it is great that we will never be a utopia. Individuals gain knowledge through experience, through failing and learning how to overcome and adapt to face our biggest problems. Individuals would never progress intellectually, mentally, or emotionally if our environments were problem safe, poke free bubbles.

Every environment is unique and created differently due to geographic and economic standards. Philadelphia’s solution for better environmental education caliber might not apply to Houston’s solution due to a lot of reasons, but most importantly because of how different each population in each of the environments is. Houston and Philadelphia are two different cities in two different states miles apart from each other, not only does location play a big factor in the issue but so does the general make up of both environments. We would need to take into consideration the types of communities that build both cities, which requires stepping in, and becoming personally aware with who lives there rather than focus solemnly on the problem at hand.

As a society we’re pushing for better environmental education, to expand and reach out to as many as possible to share the importance of being environmentally aware. As global weather issues and natural spaces become more endangered, ultimately affecting our existence and survival as well as other species on earth, we’ve become desperate to find ways to reach out to people. There are outdoor leadership programs like the SCA, Student Conservation Association, which aims to work with city kids to take them out to the outdoors to become self aware with the environment. A lot of school districts are implementing environmental science into their curriculums so that students have the opportunity of learning the concepts of what exactly an environment is and it’s significant importance to us as individuals.  

In order for individuals to develop care and nature for their environment they have to become aware of their surroundings. We must break down the division of nature and humans, outlining that we are part of nature and that people can bring out the best in nature. But in order to start with environmental education as the solution, we must immerse ourselves into the communities we are teaching. We need to understand whom exactly it is we are teaching and what points exactly are we trying to make. Our goals and approaches should not be to change the environment of the communities by implementing our ways, but rather share our knowledge of environmental education.

We can open up as many programs and host as many activities to advertise for environmental education, but it won’t mean anything to those who can’t quite understand. The problem isn’t that individuals lack interest, it’s that some simply don’t understand what it is your saying, English is not universal in every environment. We need to tear down the language barriers and expand bilingually to communities rather than sticking to what the general public can understand.

Being bilingual is not only about being able to speak more than one language, but it’s about being able to communicate with others effectively. “Cultural knowledge contributes to the success of students and how educational institutions can respond appropriately.” We must immerse ourselves into the culture and embrace the differences in order to work cohesively. Without communication, you can’t expect to connect to individuals and build a strong relationship to not only work with, but also to live among. In an environment, it’s not only about the natural spaces and wildlife, but also about the people that live in one and call it home.

My grandmother has her own compost pile in her backyard and she even grows some vegetables and fruits in her garden. Yet, my grandmother never even finished elementary school and she barely knows any English. In society, she is considered an uneducated woman and for most environmental educators, she would be labeled as an uninterested individual in the environment without getting to really know how she lives in her own community. Most would probably think she’d need to be taught the importance of the environment and teaching her ways to change her lifestyle to be more ecofriendly, when really she could be working along with them and teaching each other, but the only thing standing in between is the language barrier.

We can’t continue pushing for environmental education if we don’t realize that WE are the environment. “Language choices and practices determine who has access to resources, power, and control and who does not.” By speaking and only teaching in English you automatically cut off children who might be first generation, coming from immigrant families, like myself, that don’t know how to speak or communicate effectively in English. Those teaching in only in English, without even thinking about it, make themselves superior and take on this controlling and powerful role that automatically makes them less approachable. Not only does it make the “less educated” individuals more inferior but it makes them think that whatever they have to say or do is worthless and not helpful at all.

Programs like Project Wild should be expanding and reaching out to several other communities because not only are Latino communities struggling to communicate and work with their environments. There are different types of other families, from different backgrounds, who either lack access or speak the same “language” but their way of communicating and getting things done is quite different. Like Lapayese mentions, “bilingualism is an asset to the student and actually contributes to increased cognitive flexibility and adaptability.” It’s important for individuals to remember that teaching and learning can come both ways, not just from the ones with higher knowledge. We must remain porous and be open to change and different alternatives, just like we push for different eco-friendly alternatives.

We push for diversity in environments, why not push for diversity in our teaching methods? “Formal education in the United States is controlled by the English- only movement which does not aspire to make children high level multilinguals, truly multicultural, or even appreciative of linguistic and cultural diversity.” (Lapayese, 162) Rather than throwing in the towel and oppressing communities, that lack access to better education and resources due to economic problems, we should learn to work with what we have in each community. We have this tendency in society to want to be the same, to homogenize everything so that it is easier for us to work with, but true success and wonder comes from the individuality and uniqueness of each different environment.

We need to stop looking at different environments as places to conquer and share our great wisdom of the importance of being environmentally eco-friendly. We are not conquers, we should be messengers who are flexible and adaptable to whatever obstacle comes in its path. We can progress as a society and as educators if we keep teaching in enclosed spaces. It’s time to tear down the walls and barriers. 


jccohen's picture

diversity of human beings, environments, teaching methods


How interesting that you start with the notion that our “imperfections…as a community” can be approached as a way to help us “progress intellectually, mentally, (and) emotionally…”   So instead of worrying and despairing, we might look at the current ecological (and other) challenges as an opportunity for us as humans to use our capacity to stretch our minds and spirits in order to come up with new approaches and solutions? 


You go on to suggest that “in order to start with environmental education as the solution, we must immerse ourselves into the communities we are teaching,” and the rest of your essay takes up the idea that we/educators need to find ways to learn from and teach with the people in our communities.  One of the ways this plays out is in terms of language but it’s also about how we work with the people in a community, and I’d like to see you unpack all this more carefully in your piece.  For example, you say:  “Most would probably think (my grandmother would) need to be taught the importance of the environment and teaching her ways to change her lifestyle to be more ecofriendly, when really she could be working along with them and teaching each other, but the only thing standing in between is the language barrier.”  From the way you tell the story and also from my own experience, I think that it’s more than the “language barrier” that gets in the way here – it’s also an issue of class and race/ethnicity, and a question of who gets recognition and respect in the overlapping worlds of ecology and education.  This relates to Dorceta Taylor’s work to redefine who gets seen and counted as “environmentalists.”  What would it look like for environmental educators to seek out your grandmother (and other community members) to collaborate with them on educating young people?  As you argue, “We push for diversity in environments, why not push for diversity in our teaching methods?”