“Welcome to English Class!”

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In every municipality, in every major city, in every state from east coast to west “Welcome to English class!” is the call I would like to hear. As immigrants flock to various cities across the nation and long to find community and employment, the road is not easy. One of the areas where we could collectively encourage the adjustment process is by fighting for more English classes.

An article in the New York Times gives some interesting information about immigrants in New York State. A report called “Bad English” put out by the Center for an Urban Future in Manhattan warns of some far-reaching consequences to something seemingly as simple as cutting budgets for ESOL classes.

Census bureau numbers indicate that from 2005 to 2009 there was a six percent rise in the number of people that identified as speaking English “less than very well”. The six percent ends up being a figure of about 1.7 million people. At the same time the number of people enrolled in ESOL classes had decreased to only four percent of those adults who spoke English poorly.  The report looked at this from an economic view and warned of the serious impact to the economy. Specifically, the report states that this reality  “threatens the state’s ability to tap the skills of immigrant entrepreneurs and workers to strengthen local economies”. The problem is not only adults – because of a shortage of teachers in the school system the city of New York identified over 5,000 children not getting the English they need to be succesful in a school setting.

I have never met an immigrant who was not desperate to learn English and begin working. The reality is that English skills are a necessity in most jobs within the United States. They are also important when it comes to communicating to your child’s teachers, to health care providers, to your bank and in your local grocery store. It is not easy to function without English language skills when you are creating a new life for yourself and your family.

In a book published in 2001 by Lucy Tse called Why Don’t They Learn English? Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate some of the public perceptions of immigrants and language learning are studied and found to be myths. For instance, the author found that  immigrants and their children want to learn English and attempt to do just that in any way they can despite the many challenges that face them, one of them being a lack of ESOL classes.

The president of Laguardia Community College in a letter to the editor of the New York Times from earlier this fall says that “people hungry to learn English are placed on a waiting list that extends up to two years.”  That’s not good enough. We can do better and my guess is that these classes would pay back ten fold what is spent through the investment in people and what immigrants give back to their communities

And so I’ll ask those hard questions: Do we want immigrants to be a significant part of our communities? Do we want immigrants to contribute to the economy in our towns? Cities? States? Do we want immigrants to feel a part of the country and not become burdened with bitterness and frustration?  If so then fight for an English for Speakers of other Language class in your community. Start an ESOL class in your faith community. Be patient and willing to let people practice on you, encouraging them through the journey. Be the first to say “Welcome to English Class!”

Bloggers Note: At 83 and 85 years old my mom and dad both teach English to Speakers of Other Language classes through a church in their area. Through them I’ve learned that age is no excuse to not act.

24 thoughts on ““Welcome to English Class!”

    1. Jessica, this is Marilyn’s Mom, AKA Polly. My first suggestion is to check out any programs already going on where you live. Where I first started was not a large city, it was pretty much a factory town. And they had a local chapter of LITERACY VOLUNTEERS OF AMERICA. If you find one near by, contact them. They can help you get started either with immigrants or illiterate Americans. Yes, there are more of those people than you would realize. There may be other organizations. If you live near a University, contact their International Student office. It helps to have a bit of training, but while I did training for a certificate, and it was helpful, just reaching out and finding out what kind of help people want and need is a good way to start. Another organization that resettles immigrants is Lutheran Social Services. They always need all kinds of help including furniture and household goods donations. For volunteer work you may not need any certification, although most organizations will want to know you, or have references. If you are thinking of a career, than there are ESOL training programs from certificate level to degree level in colleges and universities.
      The main thing is an attitude of acceptance and willingness to learn from them. They have amazing stories.
      Read the comment on this page from Cathy Marshall. If you have any more specific questions, please pass them on. I’m not an expert – others know a lot more than I do.


      1. And my mom would absolutely love you!! Maybe we can arrange a meet and greet :) Seriously – if you ever want someone to speak about working cross culturally both overseas and here she would be great!


      2. Wow, thanks so much for the info.! I’ve been looking into teaching English for awhile now, but didn’t really know where to start. You gave me a good starting place.
        I did some research, looked into local places that have ESL classes, and much to my surprise discovered that right within the city I work in is a center specifically for this need! So I’m going to see how I can help.
        Thanks again. You’re inspiring!


    2. Hi Jessica – thanks so much for reading. I think my mom gave great feedback on getting involved. For people that want to get a “professional” type of certification I would recommend Oxford seminars – these are short courses that I’ve heard good things about http://www.oxfordseminars.com/tesol-tesl-tefl-course/locations-and-dates.php?source=box_pd
      Faith communities are often very open to starting ESOL classes in the evenings. Would love for you to follow up with what you decide!


      1. Marilyn … thanks for the info. on getting involved teaching English. I looked into it here locally, and decided to just go for it. I’m volunteering now with Church World Service – one of the only groups around my area that works with refugees/immigrants. And I’m so excited about the opportunity! Thanks for your blog – it really inspired me to go forward!


      2. Jessica – this is so great! I am so excited for you and can’t wait for you to guest blog for me about your students and experience! Seriously! Some of the funnest stories are around teaching English. On a more personal note, everyday when I post I go through self doubt – “why would anyone read this?” etc. Over and over I have been encouraged through people like you who connect and find the tiny grain of value in what I write and make it matter. It is a gift from God – thank you!


  1. Great post Marilyn!! Another barrier that tends to complicate matters, is that many immigrants need to work two jobs just to survive. They have very little free time to get to an ESL class. I have seen folks work 6-7 days a week, 10-12 hours a day, spend the little free time they do have, going to an English class.(amazing perseverance and courage) Several ESL programs on Long Island, have decided to take the show on the road. They hold ESL classes on lunch hours in work places to try to help meet those needs.


    1. That’s exactly what I’ve seen in healthcare Lisa – Work schedules that are many hours a day, care for families, finances. It all adds up to huge barriers. I love the example you give of the ESL classes that have gone on the road. What a great idea!


  2. Thanks for this post — so many thoughts to share! One is that even in the communities where ESL classes exist, they may be held at times and in places not accessible for those who need them most. I go back to my favorite mantra: “plan with, not for, the community.” Could we ask prospective students where and when the most convenient class could be held? Maybe more would be able to join! Another thought from my own childhood growing up in an immigrant Irish family in an immigrant Italian neighborhood . . . most of the grandparents and some of the parents in my neighborhood NEVER learned English, and no one thought anything about it! Many children and grandchildren learned English (the younger, the faster!), but others did not. Some folks have a natural facility for learning other languages, and others aren’t as fortunate. Two limited-English-speaking neighbors of ours owned a variety store, and we all communicated with very few English words, some Italian, but I hardly ever came home with the wrong items from my mom’s list! And once again, no one judged or complained — it was just normal in our neighborhood! Sometimes when others make harsh comments like, “Why did they come here if they can’t speak English??” I ask if the speaker ever had an experience like my childhood story, and often the person has . . . but had forgotten the sweet acceptance of neighbors who care about one another across language lines.
    I think my first volunteer role when I have more time will be to follow in your parents’ remarkable footsteps to work with English learners. What joy!


    1. There was a great article in the NY Times that highlighted a couple of immigrant entrepreneurs that have never learned English – interesting and highlights your point that when there is opportunity and acceptance, regardless of the absence of good English, people can thrive. I still marvel at the North End every time I’m there as I always see at least a couple older women who don’t know much English but communicate to everyone in a 5 block radius in passionate Italian. I love it.
      I agree with you about when you have more time …. I’d like to do the same!


  3. In Houston we have a large refugee population from all areas of the world. I am blessed to be connected by teaching ESL to refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Lebanon. I have made wonderful friends from the Yazzidi Kurdish community from Iraq.

    The relationships we have built and the food we have shared are delightful! I didn’t have a lot of training but even with training you can quickly learn more on the job! I highly recommend getting involved with refugees in your city. Their cultures are rich, they are so grateful and loving. With limited language you sure laugh a lot! That’s always good for the soul. We are the ones who are blessed by knowing them and helping them settle into their new lives here.


    1. Cathy – this is amazing. You must love it. It’s good to know that it didn’t take much training. I think that’s the barrier with many of us. We think “there’s no way I can teach English!” where as when people are at beginner levels then there’s much to teach without knowing all the nuances of grammar (that’s my sticky point!!) I love your testimonial of working with refugees. Thank you for sharing this.


  4. We do live in a very progressive area (in many ways more liberal than we are!) called the “Five College Area”. Besides the church where we volunteer, one of the local banks has free classes for “New Americans” with child care provided. And there are other classes, too. But even before we moved here, i got involved with Adult Literacy, helping one young man, a school dropout, to successfully pass his GED. He then did 2 years of Community College, and proudly sent me copies of his papers. That was a real challenge for me when i had to try and remember my High School Algebra. Then I moved to ESL and helped a woman my age from Colombia get her citizenship. What a proud day for both of us! However I must confess that It is an area where I feel more at home than I do in many American circles – part of being a third-culture adult. For anyone who wants to get involved, many cities have a local chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America. They do training for a certificate in Adult Literacy and ESOL, and organize classes or individual tutoring. Thanks Marilyn for the article and for your compliments to us. We are very proud of you, too!


    1. Mom – I remember when you were working with your friend from Colombia (was it Graciella? ) That was an amazing friendship. Thanks also for the information on Literacy Volunteers for America. I had no idea that they existed.
      Thanks also for being the example you are of keeping informed and involved whatever age!


  5. Kudos to Ralph & Poly Brown the octogeniarians who are still in the saddle who are not riding into the sunset but are helping round up the herd. A big Shabash for your parents, Marilyn.
    Just a few years ago, it seems, your dad & I were on the Hillside team playing MCS, etc.


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