Wednesday, May 25, 2016

TOP STORY >> English taught to immigrants

Leader staff writer

For a few minutes, El Zócalo’s Monday morning class pauses its lessons to discuss their desire for learning English, and for each student the reason for participation is slightly different.

Herman Ndah was an accountant in Cameroon, his native country, but since coming to the United States, his work options narrowed considerably. He is currently working at Wendy’s restaurant, and although math is universal, his country’s native tongue, French, isn’t.

English, he says, will allow him to communicate with clients and make him more employable.

El Zócalo Immigrant Resource Center teacher Kelsey Reville has been meeting with a group of about 20 — from about 10 different countries — for about 10 months at the Esther Dewitt Nixon Library at 703 W. Main St. She says, “Not speaking English is a big barrier, even with a college degree or training, employment opportunities can be extremely limited.”

Limited English skills impacts almost every area of their lives, and Reville says, “Their reasons for being in the class vary, like shopping, going to restaurants or understanding the news or weather.”

Yong Graves, originally from Korea, wants a little more independence and Maria Rodriquez, from Mexico, wants to be able to talk with her kids’ teachers.

Reville’s goal is to teach her students basic words and phrases that are needed in everyday and practical situations.

Her students, who have immigrated from around the globe, are quick to pick up language basics although Reville only speaks English and Spanish so students seem happy to help one another with translation and meanings.

“It works,” she says about the mix of students.

The nonprofit depends heavily on the donations of individuals and organizations like Mason & Co. Realty of Jacksonville.

Owner and Principal Broker Len Mason says the company has been sponsoring the Jacksonville class and plans to continue doing so.

“We buy supplies and whatever else the instructor needs,” she says.

As an immigrant who left Laos for America when she was a young teenager, Mason understands firsthand the importance of these classes.

“Our community can really benefit from this type of class. It teaches immigrants basic English, and it prepares them for employment,” she says.

As importantly, “It allows them to better communicate so they can interact with others.”

Without a fundamental ability to speak American English, Mason says, “Many immigrants can feel isolated or may stay home.”

Mason took advantage of the educational opportunities available in this country and earned a college degree before opening her own business.

She’s now living the American Dream and says about sponsoring the class, “I am paying it forward.”

Sometimes just speaking the language isn’t enough, says Hatsumi Goldman, formerly of Japan. Some Americans make it difficult for non-English speakers in a variety of ways, including pretending not to understand a question or request.

That can make the process of learning and speaking a new language doubly “hard,” Goldman says.

That’s just one of the reasons that Reville says she tries to create a “welcoming atmosphere” where her students can build their confidence inside, as well as outside the class.

In Spanish, El Zócalo means “town square,” reflecting central Arkansas’ philosophy of promoting a “dignified life for immigrants” and fostering a “community-wide understanding through education,” according to the group’s website.

In addition to building speaking skills, Reville and her organization help immigrants understand the services that they might take advantage of, such as educational opportunities or opening a checking account.

It might also include navigating the health-care system or reporting a crime. “These can be big obstacles,” she says.

El Zócalo Immigrant Resource Center also operates a Food and Clothing Pantry, offers Life Skill Education classes and distributes a Community Resource Guide.

For more information about the El Zócalo Immigrant Resource Center, email, call 501-301-4652 or visit