Here’s what it was like for me to transition from ESL to mainstream classes

Speaking up while learning English can be terrifying.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

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The writer of this essay is a 2022-23 Student Voices Fellow at Chalkbeat. Click to learn more about our high school fellowship program.

“So, who knows what shoe brand hasn’t changed since it was first created?” my summer instructor asked.

The room was silent. Then several of my fellow English learners murmured among themselves, but no one seemed to know the answer.

As the kid who had a knack for knowing the most trivial and random facts, I knew the answer: Converse. The shoes have looked the same since 1917.

Converse, only two syllables, I told myself. I could say two syllables. And yet, the thought of it made me recoil.

Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow Karen Otavalo created this piece of artwork. “I am wearing the same clothes I wore the day I moved to the U.S.,” she told Chalkbeat. “The flag in the background represents my Ecuadorian heritage, and the colors speak to the familiarity of my mother tongue, Spanish. America looms over me, engulfing me in the uncertainty of a new language. I venture into a new chapter of my life.” (Karen Otavalo)

In the meantime, my classmates shouted random shoe brands. I shook my head until, by process of elimination, someone finally said it: “Converse!” The instructor smiled. “Yes, that’s right,” she said. “Converse hasn’t changed since 1917.”

I sat back, and I told myself that next time, I’d speak up.

But this cycle repeated itself at school, in group discussions, and during everyday conversations. When I had to speak, the anxiety could be excruciating. I would have been more comfortable standing quietly in front of a stadium full of people than speaking to one person.

I know this challenge is not mine alone. More than a quarter of U.S. schoolchildren are immigrants or have at least one immigrant parent, according to the director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard. And for those newcomers learning English, the journey to fluency can be long, uncomfortable, and lacking mandated support.

Meanwhile, students’ degree of linguistic proficiency doesn’t just impact their academic trajectory; it can affect their mental well-being, too, according to a study published in the journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. That finding mirrors my journey as an immigrant coming from a Hispanic background, and it is an experience shared among many immigrant children arriving in the United States.

Language acquisition is rarely a linear path. 

After moving from Ecuador to the United States, I quickly swiftly acquired English writing and reading skills, but my listening and speaking skills still needed development. Sixth grade was my first year at a U.S. school, and by seventh grade, I was placed in advanced ESL. In the classroom, I felt safe and supported as I practiced my English, but outside, the world seemed intimidating. So I clung to the close-knit community we, immigrant students and our teachers, had created. We were united by moments of laughter, tears, and the shared struggles of navigating a new world.

Karen Otavalo (Courtesy photo)

My English progressed. But whenever I thought about transferring to a regular classroom, I pushed it to the back of my mind. I wasn’t ready yet.

However, time slipped through my fingers, and when I entered eighth grade, high school applications were just around the corner. I grappled with what I knew needed to happen next. The high school I wanted to attend didn’t have an ESL program; to apply, I’d have to be in a mainstream classroom. My teachers went above and beyond to make that transition happen. Recognizing my potential, they made sure language wouldn’t be a barrier. I’ll be forever grateful to them.

“It’s for the best,” one of my teachers had assured me. It was, indeed, for the best, but the best path isn’t always the easiest.

During those initial months of transition, words eluded me. When they did surface, that all-too-familiar fear rippled through me. Speech used to be one of the things I was strongest at, and seeing myself fail at something so essential — not only to get my ideas across but also to be taken seriously — was disheartening. It didn’t help that despite hours of practice sometimes it seemed like I wasn’t getting better.

I learned quickly that impatience doesn’t help things along. Language acquisition is rarely a linear path. More effort doesn’t always translate into more progress. Instead, I had to learn to be patient, and that isn’t an overnight transformation either. I still had my moments of frustration, but eventually, I got used to the ebb and flow of the learning process.

There was no single “aha” moment. Even now, I haven’t eradicated every ounce of fear that comes with speaking up. But here’s the thing with languages: They are not destinations; they are never-ending journeys. Even for native speakers. A moment of absolute readiness may never come, but taking that leap even when you are terrified makes it all the less daunting the next time around.

Karen Otavalo is a rising high school junior who adores drawing and writing in her free time. This fall, she’ll enroll in the global politics track of the IB program at her high school. She works as a youth advisor at National Crittenton and is a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow in Newark. In the future, she hopes to help underserved communities through creativity and literacy.