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My identity as a bilingual learner

Posted 2:06 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021

UW-La Crosse student Ka Zang Lee shared her literacy narrative as part of the College Writing Symposium in fall 2021.

Student shares her struggles with literacy and what she wishes educators knew about being bilingual

By Ka Zang Lee

I have been asked and told by educators, “Is English your second language? Is that why you do not comprehend the course content? English is your second language therefore your paper has a lot of incorrect grammar and punctuations.” As a person of color and bilingual, my identity should not be compared to someone whose English literacy is not proficient. Born here in the United States but raised by a refugee parent, I struggled to meet the criteria of English literacy from my childhood to adolescent years. I was trying to find my identity in two different worlds. At home, I was taught how to read, write, and speak in Hmong. At school, I am taught how to read, write, and speak English.  

A memory that I can still recall was when I was five years old coming home right after school. I took off my shoes and hung up my backpack at the door entrance. My father turned around, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “You are at home so speak Hmong only. You can only speak English while working on your homework. Leave the English language at school. This is my rule, and you must follow it. Ok?” Looking back into my father’s eyes, I nodded my head yes. Even though following these rules was expected, I went ahead and broke the rules. I headed straight to the T.V., pressed the power button on, adjusted the T.V. antenna for a better connection, and turned the channel dial to Sesame Street on PBS kids. Walking back to the sofa I sat down and watched Big Bird talking to the children about today’s lesson. Big Bird’s lesson of the day was learning the alphabet. As Big Bird sang the alphabet song, I sang along with him. I tried to memorize how the alphabet letters look like in alphabetical order and compared the alphabet letters to the first letter in the names of fruits or animals. After watching Sesame Street, I would take out a piece of paper and write out the letters — making out the sounds of each alphabet letter that I have memorized. The letter “A” was easy for me because it was one of the alphabet letters in my name. 

Even though I had utilized Sesame Street as one resource to improve my English literacy at home, I could not help but to think about why speaking English at home was not allowed. The following day my father walked my brother and me to school, holding his warm hand as he swings it back and forth. I asked the big question, “Why can’t I speak English at home?” There was a moment of silence from my dad as he was thinking about how he should answer this question before he spoke. “The reason I don’t allow you and your siblings to speak English at home is that I do not want my children to lose their native language. I do not want my children to forget who they are.” Squeezing his hand, I looked up into my father’s eyes and said, “Ok, Dad.” My father smiled back without any words. I believe knowing my identity was valuable at home; however, this affected me at school. Even in kindergarten, I still had not met my reading and writing criteria. My teacher worried that I had fallen behind. For this reason, I was held back a year and had to take kindergarten again. My parents and my kindergarten teacher broke the news to me. I was devastated to be held back a grade. I felt sad to leave my friends behind. I was angry at myself for being a failure, and it made me realize how important English literacy was.  

After this incident in kindergarten, I thought my struggle with English literacy had ended. Unfortunately, my struggle continued into my middle school and high school years. This time specifically with an English writing class, I had a weak foundation in writing due to an underdeveloped vocabulary, poor grammar, poor spelling, lack of access to reading materials, and developing writing skills. For this reason, I was placed into the English as a Second Language program, better known as ESL. The idea behind placing me into the ESL program was to help me to become fluent in English literacy by breaking down the English language rules, but to me it was once again memorization. My struggle with English literacy affected my middle and high school academic performance so much that I was told by my high school advisor, “You will never be able to attend a four-year college. You might be able to attend a technical college, but never a four-year college.” This made me feel even worse about my English literacy and affected my attitude about it. I figured, why take the time to comprehend? So, I decided to just memorize so I can graduate with my high school diploma. 

The fact that I was told that I would not be able to attend a four-year college did not stop me from enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL). Attending UWL, I noticed a big shift from a high school-level to a university-level English literacy. At UWL I learned that writing is a crucial skill to have because I am challenged every day to write and think critically and analytically. However, to be able to write a good piece, I still struggle to develop my vocabulary—I struggle to find the right words, which challenges me in my writing skills. I’ve discovered that vocabulary is the foundation that builds good sentences for effective writing, and it also helps me to comprehend the content of my courses. Because I don't have confidence in my writing skills and vocabulary, I have developed anxiety. I worry about how my professors will judge me and criticize my writing as a bilingual student. I quickly realized how my memorization habits would impact my ability to comprehend and critically think once I began education at UWL.    

Despite my academic challenges, my perception of English literacy has changed not only as a student but as a parent. My children were born here in the United State where English is their first language, not second. I raise my children differently from how my parents raised me at home. Unlike my father who did not permit spoken English at home, English is primarily spoken at my home. However, I know it is important for my children to know their race and ethnicity. Therefore, I encourage my children to learn the Hmong language and culture. Unfortunately, they are not able to grasp the Hmong language and culture as quickly as English. As a parent, I do not want any of my children to experience the struggle with English literacy like I did. I have a daughter and she reminds me a lot of myself at her age. She is struggling to read and write in her class. I do not want my daughter to have the experience of being held back a grade. I do not want her to lose her friends, to feel like a failure, and to be unable to move onto the next grade level as I did. I want her to improve her English literacy. The only way for her to improve her English literacy is to spend time with her after school or on the weekends. I purchased writing workbooks, flashcards, and she and I work on it together. We sing and write the alphabet letters in big letters and small letters. We use alphabet flashcards to make out the sounds of each letter. We practice writing her name and the family names. As she wrote our names, she noticed that we all share the letter “A” in our names. 

I still struggle when I’m asked the questions “Is English your second language? Is that why you do not comprehend the course content?” While it may be true that English is my second language, I hope that educators will understand bilingual students’ hardships with learning English literacy and have compassion or empathy toward these students. Because not only does this affect students individually, it also affects how those students will raise their children.   

UWL College Writing Symposium

UW-La Crosse students pictured at the 2021 College Writing Symposium. The day-long event showcased the work of UWL’s first-year writers in English classes.

Ka Zang Lee’s essay was part of the 2021 College Writing Symposium at UW-La Crosse. The day-long event showcased the work of UWL’s first-year writers in English classes, ENG 100, 110, and 112. The CWS provided students with additional opportunities to practice sharing their writing with audiences outside of their immediate classes, to professionalize, and to demonstrate to future employers, scholarship committees, and internship providers that they’re willing to work outside their comfort zones.  

“Ka Zang Lee’s essay is a poignant example of the unseen struggles and triumphs with writing that UWL students experience,” says UWL Professor of English Darci Thoune. “Her literacy narrative highlights in exquisite detail how formative experiences with our families and at school shape who we are as learners.” 

Ka Zang Lee is a second-year student at UWL studying sociology with a minor in ethnic and racial studies. She is a mother of three and a wife who lives in the La Crosse area. In her free time, she likes to travel and do outdoor activities with her family.