Respecting native languages in the classroom is key to refugee success

Delaney Kraus | staff photographer | 2022-2023 Faculty Research Award winner Xia Chao gave a lecture on English language learners and had students estimate statistics of immigrants and refugee students in the United States. Chao's dissertation on ethnography started her research on Bhutanese refugees.

Kaitlyn Hughes | Staff Writer

Duquesne Associate Professor Xia Chao studies immigrant and refugee languages and knows the importance of honoring a student’s native language even while teaching them English.

Following her extensive work with Bhutanese families in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, Chao’s goal is to teach educators to appreciate immigrants and refugees’ languages, literary practices and customs.

On Jan. 25, Chao, the recipient of Duquesne’s Center for Migration, Displacement and Community Studies 2022-2023 Faculty Research Award, spoke to students about her research in the Africa Room.

Chao’s four-year ethnography in Christian, church-based English-speaking language programs for primarily Spanish speaking immigrants is what led her to apply to be a professor at Duquesne.

Chao’s daughter is a former English as a Second Language student.

“I witnessed the struggles for her,” Chao said, “the frustrations, confusions and the hard times as a parent.”

Jennie Schulze, Director for the Center for Migration, Displacement and Community Studies, said the award is given to recognize a publication of a faculty member working in the field of migration studies.

Chao won for her publication “I walk in language circles’: transnational-translocal entanglements of a refugee-background Somali-Bantu’s multilingual identity,” which was published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.

“The committee was impressed by the in-depth field work that informed her research, and by the strong connection of her research to the mission of the center in raising awareness about the challenges facing immigrant communities,” Schulze said.

Chao understands the difficulties refugees and immigrants go through when they come to the United States. This drives the passion in her research.

When she relocated to Pittsburgh in 2015, she reached out to Dan Cramer,the pastor at Zion Christian Church. At the time Chao found the church, they were conducting extensive research to help the Bhutanese refugee population that was growing in Pittsburgh.

“We were able to introduce her to the community, and then she took it from there,” Cramer said. “That ended up earning her a well-deserved award.”

Chao’s work raised awareness of how Pittsburgh can be a more welcoming community to refugees and the challenges they face. Her lecture showed the importance of this topic by highlighting the number of individuals impacted.

She shared that 15% of the student body of refugee communities in Pittsburgh from 2019 and 2020 was made up of children who spoke Bhutanese, Burmese/Karen, Somali, Sudanese.

Clinical associate professor Julia Williams, teacher in the Leading Teacher PreK-4 Program at Duquesne, noted how prominent these numbers are in the Pittsburgh Area.

“The challenges that the students face in regards to not being able to utilize their own language in school impacts their overall development,” Williams said. “I was wondering if we need to go a different direction in how we engage and instruct ESL students due to the fact that many schools and teachers believe in full immersion in the English language and not allowing students to bring their home language into the classroom.”

According to Chao, English language learners transfer the information cognitively by deciphering what is being asked of them in their own languages.

Chao’s lecture highlighted that parents and grandparents of students learning English are unable to assist their children with homework because of the language barrier.

“Through more storytelling, discussions, and immigrant voices we will be able to build a collective learning culture and help students,” student Delancey Walton said.The United States is singular in language. Williams hopes to encourage schools to require a foreign language to better prepare students to be a member of a global society.

One way to do this, according to Williams, is by preparing teachers on how to work more effectively with students learning English. It is important to discuss how students from different cultures are reacting to how information is being presented. Being mindful of every student’s success will lead to a beneficial change for all.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students who are not [English language learning] students to be seeing some insights, shared knowledge and lived experiences from others,” Williams said. “I think it makes the classroom richer.”

As part of her work, Chao said she tries to support the refugee community. In 2019 and 2020 Chao delivered a series of refugee education workshops to the public. Her hope was to empower the vulnerable members of the refugee population.

While working in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, Chao had her students do collaborative research to interview people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Chao also took students to visit the immigrant and refugee communities. Her goal was to educate with experiences beyond sitting in the classroom.

“It is not just what we do for others, but what we do with others for the common good,” Chao said.

Zack Kane, a student at Duquesne studying political science and international relations, said the process of teaching English language learners in the classroom can always be improved. He thinks it is crucial that people avoid losing touch with the experience of immigrants coming to our country to help divert the challenges they face.

“I think the future of ESL will brighten as more research and effort is put into improving the overall experience for immigrants,” Kane said.