Delaware Valley: A Lesson in English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jun 25 15:07:05 UTC 2006

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Sun, Jun. 25, 2006

A lesson in English:  Figures show that demand among adult immigrants for
language classes is outpacing funds for such instruction.

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Inquirer Staff Writer

The hullabaloo over the signs at Geno's Steaks has been fed by a
perception that many immigrants don't want to, try to or have to speak
English. That perception is so fierce and deep that elected officials at
every level have reacted: The U.S. Senate voted last month to make English
the national language as part of its proposed immigration overhaul. The
coal-country town of Hazleton, Pa., just passed an English-only ordinance.
And President Bush, in an address in May, urged newcomers to learn English
to "honor the great American tradition of the melting pot." He was
proselytizing the converted, judging by the demand among adult immigrants
for English classes - a demand that has been outpacing funds for such

"You close your mind. You close all the opportunities for your life"
without English, said Ruben Del Rosario. The 27-year-old Mexican immigrant
lives near the now world-famous Geno's signs that exhort, "This is
America. When ordering, please speak English." That is just what Del
Rosario has been trying to do since coming to the United States six years
ago. He picked up the word cocky from sportscasters riffing on Sixers
games. He puzzled over the word nappy, overheard on the streets of
Philadelphia. And he attends English classes three hours a day, five
mornings a week.

About 1.2 million adults take English for Speakers of Other Languages
(ESOL) classes subsidized partly by the state and federal government and
typically run by civic groups, community colleges, churches and even
unions. Others take classes funded by charitable groups; still more pay
for-profits to school them. The classes are full to the brim, pushed there
by growing numbers of immigrants who are isolated by language. Ten years
ago, Philadelphia's Center for Literacy had a few English classes for
adult immigrants. Now it has 16 classes and 400 students.

One in four people speaking a foreign language at home wants to study
English but can't because of a lack of time, child care, money or
transportation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
At the same time demand has risen, state and federal funds for
adult-education programs, which include English for immigrants, have
stagnated. The budget for one program, Even Start, was halved last year
and faces more cuts in 2007. "There aren't enough resources to teach all
the people who want to take English classes," said Liza Rodriguez, an ESOL
teacher for a decade.

Juntos, a Mexican community association in South Philadelphia where Del
Rosario studies English, gets no government money for its small,
volunteer-taught classes. It applied for funding through the state but was
told there was no more, organizer Peter Bloom said. More groups are
applying for federal and state adult-education grants distributed by the
Pennsylvania Department of Education, said spokesman Brian McDonald.
"We've had to turn them away," he said. "We can't necessarily take on more
of a load."

Despite the growing need, the department has awarded the same yearly
amount for ESOL classes since 2002: about $8 million, or one-third of all
its money for family literacy. Funding for English classes at ACLAMO
(Accion Comunal Latinoamericana de Montgomery County), a community service
agency, has dropped from $119,000 to $98,000 over the last five years.
"We're stuck having to raise more private dollars," said Justin Fink, its
associate director of education programs. The agency used to serve 20
families through Even Start. Now it serves 18. A health crisis with her
baby daughter drove Norma Flores, 21, to ACLAMO's classes a year ago.

"We went to the emergency room, and sometimes nobody spoke Spanish," the
mother of four explained in English. "The doctor needs to know if she
drink the medicine, if she has a fever, and I couldn't tell him." "I
feel...," Flores said, straining to find the words. Her teacher, Marla
Benssy, pulled out a binder and indicated a page with emoticons. Flores
found the ones that applied: "I feel 'stressed out.' I feel 'sad.' " Most
of ACLAMO's English students are women from impoverished rural areas in
the Mexican state of Puebla. About a third balance classes with work and
child-rearing. Many were forced to drop out of elementary school, some as
early as the third grade.

"It's one thing to teach English when it truly is a second language," said
Benssy, an ESOL teacher for 15 years. "It's another thing when they have
no idea not only what a tense is, but what a verb is... . They really are
up against huge odds, and it's amazing that they get it." To skeptics, it
might be striking that immigrants even want to get it.  Twenty-seven
states have passed ballot initiatives or bills making English the official
language for government business. A similar legislative effort is underway
in Harrisburg. Those who want to mandate the use of English, whether from
state capitals or from cheesesteak row, say that society does not force
immigrants to speak English the way it did a century ago.

Limited-English speakers now have federal protections. The Civil Rights
Act of 1964 bars discrimination based on national origin. Under Title VI
of that act, recipients of federal money must take "reasonable steps" to
give "meaningful access" to services for those with little English,
according to 2002 Justice Department guidelines. But enforcing those
guidelines is a battle, said Paul Uyehara, a lawyer at Community Legal
Services in Philadelphia. "You could walk down the street, and there are
violations left and right,"  he said.

The Philadelphia Police Department, for one, was in danger of losing
federal funds until last fall, when it started training officers to use
qualified interpreters to talk to victims and suspects. Also, neighborhood
comfort zones remain for non-English speakers, on small scales such as
South Philadelphia's nascent Little Mexico and on large ones such as
Miami-Dade County in south Florida. "In almost any language in the U.S.,
you can find an enclave," said Benssy. "You can get through your life
speaking only Korean in some parts of Lansdale or Philadelphia."

A Korean woman here for three decades finally went to Benssy's class in
Glenside so she could communicate with her grandson. "Some people come
here at an old age, and it's very difficult to master the language, but
most people want to speak English," said Marina Lipkovskaya, a teacher at
the New World Association. Her nonprofit teaches English to 700 adults in
Bensalem and Northeast Philadelphia, areas crowded with Russian-speaking
doctors, auto mechanics and insurance agents. West Marshall Street in
Norristown, home to ACLAMO, is an enclave in the making. The street is
studded with signs in Spanish. They advertise Las Mejores Botas de Mexico
("the best boots from Mexico"), apartments for rent, children's clothes,
DVDs and phone cards.

Adelita's Mexican Market carries Maxim en espanol, a telenovela magazine,
a book about migrant deaths on the border and erotic comics - all in
Spanish. A Spanish-English dictionary stands out in the mix. Nearby, an
African American barber has posted a written sign in Spanish.  It
translates to: "Victor the barber. There's a Mexican here to serve you."
Even in this linguistic cocoon, Andres Rosas, a cook at a Buca di Beppo
restaurant who has been in this country six years, realized he needed to
learn English. He enrolled in ACLAMO's program with his son 11/2 years
ago. "When you don't speak English," he said, "always it's very hard."

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