Spanish Speaker in New York

Karla Saavedra is 16 and lives in Brooklyn, NY She moved to new york two years ago from mexico and has been attending Bushwick High School ever since. Her English has been steadily improving, but she has to work very hard at it. And although she still struggles to speak fluently and clearly, she is determined to tell this story in English.

To hear the audio broadcast of this story visit the Radio Rookies site.

Karla: The first day I came to New York, I was telling them all the news from Mexico. At one point, I said something very funny. Everyone was laughing so hard and my pregnant older sister passed out. We slapped her face, but she didn’t wake up. So my mother became very scared and called 911.

Karla’s mother in Spanish (translated): It was terrible because the operator didn't speak Spanish and I didn't speak English, so I was worried. You know how I felt -- I didn't know how to translate what the operator said. I was just hoping that everything would go all right.

Karla: Somehow, the paramedics understood where to come. When they arrived, my mother spoke to them in Spanish, and they were able to follow. I just stood there and watched, so frustrated because I couldn't help -- I couldn't translate anything.

Karla’s mother in Spanish (translated): This was an experience for me. I told my kids to try to speak English and that they must push themselves to learn English. Because this is a country that's unfamiliar to us.

Karla: This country has a lot of immigrants, so many people are unfamiliar with English. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans, like my friend Jesus who lives one block away from me.

(walking, sound of Karla ringing bell, walking up stairs.)
"At school, I have only one bilingual class -- Global Studies. I take Math, English Grammar, English reading and writing, and Science -- all in English. The teachers understand Spanish, but they don't speak it."


Karla (translated): There are a lot of stairs.

Karla: Jesus says he didn’t have a hard time like I'm having.

Jesus in Spanish (translated): It's very easy. My family comes from Puerto Rico. Since we came over here 85% of my family speaks English and is doing fine here.

Karla: But he says here in this neighborhood, they hardly ever need to use it.

Jesus in Spanish (translated): Our households are Hispanic. And we see Spanish channels. We listen to Spanish music. We don't practice English. We're keeping our Hispanic tradition.

Karla: It’s easy to put off learning English – especially when you’re shy, like me. Spanish is spoken so much here. My first day in the school, it was very difficult because I didn't know how to get around. Every hallway and every floor looked the same as the other. So I got lost when I was going to class. After the bell rang, a security guard started yelling at me in English. But I couldn't understand him and he got even angrier. So he brought me to the principal.

Principal Rene Pollock in Spanish (translated): Certainly, there’s the old building, and the new building for you, and the room numbers, and it's true -- it's a big place, and you needed me, as a friend, as a principal, as a teacher, and as a person to help you at the school.

Karla: I was so relieved -- Principal Rene Pollock speaks Spanish. But she says you can not depend on luck. And you can not have real success in New York without learning English.

Karla in Spanish (translated): Are the majority of the programs at this school bilingual?

Rene Pollock in Spanish (translated): Most of the students who come have already had classes in New York. So we need a type of bilingual class that's not totally in Spanish -- it's in English and in Spanish.

Karla: At school, I have only one bilingual class -- Global Studies. I take Math, English Grammar, English reading and writing, and Science -- all in English. The teachers understand Spanish, but they don't speak it.

(sounds of class)

Karla: My English teacher Mrs. Cortez says she enjoys watching her students progress in a second language, and move toward professional careers. But I do not think I will really ever learn English if I only speak it in the classroom.

(classroom sounds continue : class repeats after teacher: I remember, my aunt, uncle and cousins lived on a little farm in the country outside Rome…)

Karla in English (translated): How can one make learning English interesting to people who don't speak it, so we can overcome the obstacles to learning it?

Mrs. Cortez in Spanish (translated): Naturally, it would be a good idea to form a study group, where people study together and help one another learn. Listening, pronouncing, reading. One pushes the other. It creates a sense of competition between them, and they help each other at the same time.

Karla: I have not started a study group, but my friend Clarivel and I have been trying to practice together.

Karla: Hey, I have one question for you. It's special. Do you have a boyfriend?

"It's a good idea to form a study group, where people study together and help one another learn. Listening, pronouncing, reading. One pushes the other. It creates a sense of competition between them, and they help each other at the same time.

Clarivel: Yes I have a boyfriend.
Karla: Ahhh. What's his name?
Clarivel: Jose.
Karla: Jose what?
Karla: She doesn't know his last name!
(laughter)
Clarivel: You got a boyfriend?
Karla: No.
Clarivel: Why not?
Karla: I don't like boyfriends.
Clarivel: I know why!
Karla: Why?
Clarivel: Because you like to study. (Karla says Yeah) You like to do your homework. You like to pay attention to the teacher. That's why you don't have a boyfriend.

Karla: I’m also starting to watch English TV channels and listen to English radio. And I like to practice with my favorite band, Metallica.

(Karla sings along to Metallica song: Forever trusting who we are and nothing else matters…singing continued in background)

Karla: Normally, I don't sing in public, but I want people to know how difficult it is to learn English and how hard I'm trying. I hope, after listening to my story, you will understand what it's like. And I hope, next time we have to call 911, I will be more prepared.

(Karla singing along with Metallica continued: Every day for us something new. Open mind for a different view…and nothing else matters)

For WNYC, I am Rookie Reporter Karla Saavedra

Radio Rookies is a project of WNYC in New York, NY.
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