A Lesson in English

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

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 instruction.

“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 español, 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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