Tennessee: Waiting lists, transportation issues keep some from learning English
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Wed Jul 16 13:55:16 UTC 2008
Waiting lists, transportation issues keep some from learning English
Effort takes on urgency with approach of English-only ballot
By JANELL ROSS • Staff Writer • July 15, 2008
The students chant the same words in different foreign accents,
repeating the basics of feminine attire in a language they're eager to
It's the Monday morning English as a Second Language class at Woodbine
Community Center, packed with men and women from Mexico, Iraq, Somalia
and the Sudan. One held a baby and others brought children who were
playing in the back of the room. Efforts to teach immigrants the
language are taking on a sense of urgency as backers of an
English-only initiative for Nashville say they are nearing the number
of signatures needed to get their issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. But some
of Nashville's English language programs have long waiting lists, and,
to complicate matters, immigrants often have multiple jobs, shifting
schedules and child-care problems.
"There are lots of issues that stand in the way," said Angela Harris,
English as a Second Language director at the Tennessee Foreign
Language Institute, a state agency that provides language instruction,
foreign language teacher training and other services. Other classes
are offered by the city, school district, churches and social service
agencies. The ballot initiative seeks to put an end to what backers
describe as immigrants being able to "demand" services or the ability
to do business with the city in foreign languages.
Since mid-June, Metro District 22 Councilman Eric Crafton's group,
Nashville English First, has mailed 33,000 petition postcards to
Davidson County voters seeking to put the measure on the ballot.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 cards have come back signed, Crafton said. The
group will mail 12,000 more early this week. The group needs 10,103
signatures by Aug. 16 to place the measure on the November ballot.
Crafton sponsored a similar bill last year that was passed by the
Metro Council and vetoed by then-Mayor Bill Purcell. But the ballot
measure, if passed, would be veto-proof.
Bill is called an incentive
Crafton said he did not object to critical information such as health
and public safety communications continuing to be made available in
multiple languages — although the proposed ballot language doesn't
specify that. "People who choose to come to this country need to speak
the language," Crafton said. "Or, they need to learn. And it's not
government's responsibility to teach them. But government can give
them an incentive to learn."
But LaWanna Shelton, the director of Metro schools' English as a
Second Language programs, said people don't learn languages simply
because they are surrounded by them.
"How many people studied a foreign language in high school, or high
school and college?" Shelton said. "How many have been on those
Spanish immersion trips to Mexico for two weeks? How many can speak
that language, I mean, really speak that language, read it, write it?
Well, that should give people some idea how difficult, how individual,
how much of a process it really is."
To learn a language, people typically need a combination of regular
exposure, desire, use and opportunities to connect one word or symbol
in one language to another, such as a pamphlet or a sign printed in
two languages, Shelton said.
Fadumo Siyke, a native of Somalia who will become a U.S. citizen later
this month, learned by watching TV, listening and talking and,
finally, attending a class.
"You can try, you can study, you can watch the TV, you can speak in
English," she said. "But you cannot speak the English, read the
English, write the English overnight."
Siyke said it took four years to speak proficient English in most
settings, but she still couldn't read or write the language. When she
took her citizenship exam for the first time in January, she passed
the oral section but failed the written test.
Then Siyke came to Woodbine, where she has expanded her vocabulary and
begun reading and writing English for the first time. The
three-classes-a-week program costs $5 a week and serves about 300
Siyke passed the entire citizenship test on June 24. She said she
hoped her fluency would help her get a job in security instead of
More classes are needed
Even with six classes taught virtually every weekday, more classes are
needed, said Robbie Nash, Woodbine's education director. "We need to
be sure there are more English and literacy classes all over the
city," said Nash, "in more churches, more workplaces, every school in
every neighborhood, before we create some policy."
Metro's adult education program has a grant that will cover the cost
of teachers working with groups of 15 or more, said April Jackson,
Metro's adult education coordinator.
The Tennessee Foreign Language Institute sends those earning their
English as a Second Language teaching credentials to the Somali
Community Center off Murfreesboro Road, the Progresso Community Center
on Nolensville Pike and other agencies.
Still, there are many immigrants who can't get to classes or attend regularly.
Most work low-wage and multiple jobs where schedules change from week
to week, said Renata Soto, executive director of Conexion Americas, a
Nashville nonprofit agency that aids Spanish speakers.
"When you are an adult putting the bread on your table for your
children, it has to take precedence over everything else, even
learning the language when you very much want or need to do that," she
The push to make English Nashville's official language is pointless,
Soto said. When Soto's agency surveys Latinos in the Nashville area,
one answer appears repeatedly.
"People don't talk about a better-paying job, sometimes they don't
even talk about papers," she said. "They say almost universally if I
knew English other doors would open."
Agencies face challenges
Then, there are the challenges the agencies offering English language
courses face themselves.
Woodbine is always looking for grant funding to add more courses, Nash
said. The Tennessee Foreign Language Institute has this year lost a
major source of funding for partial language-learning scholar ships,
backing from the Rasmussen Foundation, said Janice Rodriguez,
executive director. The agency hopes to locate additional funding
And, the Nashville Adult Literacy Council, which also works with
U.S.-born adults who cannot read, is in need of nearly 100 volunteers
willing to work one-on-one with foreign-language speakers or adults
who want to learn to read.
"People who are interested in this issue, everyone speaking English,
they should consider volunteering so they can see just what it takes,"
said Meg Nugent, the council's executive director.
Volunteers do not have to be bilingual, Nugent said.
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