The National Catholic Review

When the bell rings on Monday evenings, the adult students in my class gather their book bags and rush out—eager to end their long day and go home. I shout after them, “Have a good night” and “Get home safely.” They wave back and tell me the same—in English.

 

I don’t take these parting words for granted. I pack up my own books, smiling at how well they pronounced have and safely. As a volunteer, I teach English as a second language to immigrant adults. Although the majority are Hispanics, my students come from all over the world. Each semester the number of enrolled adults increases and, according to the Laubach Literacy Group, adult E.S.L. enrollment continues to grow nationwide at a steady rate of 4 percent each year. But this increase is not surprising, considering that foreign-born individuals represent 11.5 percent of the total U.S. population—a figure that has nearly doubled since the last census of 1990.

Feeling the effects of a sour economy and increased competition among low-skilled laborers, a record number of adult immigrants are attending E.S.L. programs to learn the English skills needed to improve their lives. I see first-hand that my students are working longer hours, but they remain committed to attending class and putting in the effort to study. That’s because the goals that drive immigrants, such as qualifying for U.S. citizenship or obtaining better jobs, are now more important than ever as they move from the fringes of our changing society into the mainstream.

At the turn of the 20th century, a wave of immigrants poured through Ellis Island and settled in urban areas in the Northeast. Today, in this new millennium, the United States has three times the number of immigrants, and the vast geographical areas of the West and Southwest are their primary destinations. For the nearly 35 million immigrants currently residing and working in the United States, access to English language instruction has greatly expanded opportunities throughout the country.

During earlier periods of U.S. history, E.S.L. classes were mainly free public programs, taught at such places as the public libraries. But expanding on precedents set in the early 1900’s, private groups, charity organizations and religious institutions realized that the beneficiaries of English language instruction were not only adult immigrants, but also the community at large. Various sociological studies and educational reports provided empirical data that enabled the federal government to recognize a pressing need for this type of schooling. To date, the U.S. Department of Education is the largest funder of E.S.L. programs, annually earmarking as much as $17.25 million to assure the programs’ quality.

E.S.L. students are accidental activists. They come into my classroom to learn English because they have already identified the objective of a job with better pay, but they are also unwittingly changing the employment landscape of America. When English-speaking immigrants enter the workforce, there are likely to be two immediate effects. The first is an obvious self-empowerment that can be as grand in scale as Cesar Chavez’s or a more modest personal change, such as advancing from the ranks of restaurant dishwasher to busboy. The latter position is still considered low-skill, but nonetheless represents a considerable economic improvement over the former. The second effect occurs when English-speaking immigrants become integrated into our society while retaining their native language and culture. Such diversity is what makes our country great. And when my English-speaking students apply for new jobs, they find that their multiculturalism is a valuable asset to use as leverage with prospective employers.

I have spoken with several of my students over the years, not just for the professional purposes of writing about E.S.L., but because volunteer work calls for personal involvement. Their aspirations resonate strongly with me, because my own parents emigrated from Puerto Rico to the mainland in 1950. Unlike other recent arrivals in the states, my parents had a leg up on establishing themselves in our society because they were already U.S. citizens. But very much like those from other cultures, they arrived with a desire to learn more of the English language in the hopes of improving their station in life. And they did it; they arrived here with very little in way of possessions, and through hard work they eventually achieved a middle-class lifestyle.

Ana Lopez, 25, knows a lot about hard work. Ever since she arrived in New York from Argentina two years ago, she has been working 10-hour days at an embroidery factory. And while she is grateful to have the job, the pay is off the books and her job security is low. But she still manages to attend my E.S.L. class two nights a week, and in her “spare” time she flips through a copy of The New York Post trying to identify vocabulary learned in class. “My aunt can get me a job as a seamstress for a clothing company with better money. But the union wants me to know English,” she says. Obviously, the lure of the job for Ana is not only the money, but also the union membership that comes with it. Ana has learned from her aunt and other seamstresses that if she can appropriately fill out a membership application as well as demonstrate a certain amount of fluency during an interview, the union may be willing to sponsor her for a work visa. Such a visa would be a boon for Ana, because it is her goal to become a contributing and recognized member of society so that one day she can qualify for citizenship.

Sometimes, though, learning English as a second language is about neither the money nor the papers, but is a matter of pride. Alejandria Garcia, 42, has lived in Corona, Queens for five years and is tired of just getting by. “There are some women in my neighborhood who have lived here for more than 20 years and don’t know English! They depend on their children for important matters. Not me. I want to make my own phone calls and demand answers to my own questions,” she has said. This student lives in a predominantly South American neighborhood where advertisements in store windows are written in Spanish, and nearly every shop and restaurant employee speaks Spanish. She has discovered that even though her basic day-to-day needs can be met locally, there is more to the United States than her 10-block neighborhood. By learning English, she is availing herself of opportunities that she previously thought were not open to immigrants—like community college courses and a driver’s license.

These two students are just a sample of the hundreds of thousands who take the initiative each year to learn English. In fact, the demand for E.S.L. is so great in some areas of the country that students can wait a month or more before there is an opening on the attendance rolls. As a result, English language instruction schools have proliferated throughout the United States. Private institutions are the majority providers of adult education classes, accounting for 76 percent of E.S.L. programs, with the balance of English language instruction located within the public sector as a free social service. The private institutions that offer E.S.L. are as diverse as charitable organizations, churches and synagogues, and independently operated language schools. Any adult immigrant who is interested in learning English has a wide variety of schools from which to choose.

The decision to learn English is a monumental one, as anyone who juggles the demands of family, work and school can attest. But within months of working their way through reading exercises and writing assignments, they begin to share openly in class about the improvements they are experiencing in their lives—experiences that cannot be quantified on educational statistics reports. After all, how can one measure the benefit of parents staying involved in their children’s lives? Many immigrants bring their children to America to provide them with the opportunity of a better education. But a fracture between parent and child can occur when two different languages are spoken and there is no attempt by the parent to bridge the communication gap. A child can feel that a parent “doesn’t speak my language,” a metaphor for “you don’t understand my ambitions or the pressures I face.” All parents want to be a part of the socio-cultural world of their children, and learning English as a second language enables immigrant parents to talk candidly with teachers and better understand their children’s development in this new environment.

When an adult immigrant walks into my classroom with a commitment to learn English, he or she is making an individual choice without any larger sociological perspective. But their new knowledge actually extends beyond their personal circumstances—touching the lives of their children and ultimately infusing new energy into society and perpetuating the concept of the American dream.

Yvonne Pesquera, a professional writer, is a volunteer teacher in the adult education program at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York City. The names and biographical data of her students in this article have been changed to protect t