Music in the air: immigrants learn English in a post office

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THE back road to Salinas from the Monterey Peninsula provides a change from the buffeting sea breezes, taking you away from the dunes and cresting just above the Salinas River. After the bridge the road narrows, carries you swiftly down toward the inviting scene below, past newly plowed fields, their rows even and steady as a drumbeat, past the lettuce: row upon row of green leaf, interspersed with rows and rows of purple leaf, then on past blue-green leaves wrapped around white cauliflower. Fields stretch as far as the eye can see in the morning light across the Salinas Valley.

Salinas town is there, ringed by hills and protected by fields, fields tended by hatted workers in colorful clothes, their neckerchiefs pulled up over their noses. Most are Mexicans.

They come to work in the fields. They have names like Eudoxio and F'eliz and Guadalupe, Eriberto and Socorro and Mariceli, Altagracia and Heraclio. Many have family already in the area. Spanish is the language and music in the air, lending a definite other-world feeling to Salinas, a town with an estimated Mexican population of more than 40,000 out of 100,000.

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Some of the issues facing the Mexican population include housing, wages, and field conditions, but the major issue is language. For while the Spanish-speaking community is large, English is still the majority language and many ordinary transactions must be done in English. Fortunately, Salinas has a well-established adult education system, involving 20,000 students. About 4,000 are taking English as a second language (ESL), with Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, as the majority. About 2,000 study English in classrooms off the main lobby in the local post office.

Like the post office in any self-respecting town, the Old Post Office in downtown Salinas is a hub of activity. The morning sun, shining in through the long paned windows, its light filtering through perennially dusty venetian blinds, warms the lobby and highlights the tiny brass and glass mail compartments numbered in red and gold. As people briskly arrive for the day's mail, the air is filled with the sound of footsteps across the old brick floor, the snaps and clicks of many mail compartments being opened and hurriedly shut, and snatches of conversations.

A line forms within the maroon plastic ropes, people waiting for Vern or Vivian or Lenny at their counter sections. Overheard pieces of conversation might be in Spanish, in Vietnamese, English, black English, or post office English:

``Book 'a 25's.''

``There y'are.''

Around the edges of the lobby are the students dressed in their best, expectant, ready. Before class and at break they lounge against the windowsills or at the extra counters, off to one side, but visible, speaking to each other, watching the activity.

From down the hall come sounds of the pronunciation class: ``seat-sit; beat-bit.'' A teacher passes through, pausing to talk with students in Spanish. Doors in the lobby are constantly opening and closing; there is movement, there is a sense of aliveness.

Many of the people attracted to this area are rural folk and have had little formal schooling in Mexico. Many begin their formal education in an adult school, bringing with them pockets of fluency or knowledge of English from their various and broad experiences.

But before they can acquire literacy in their second language, it would be helpful, even necessary, for them to work toward literacy in their first language. The task is neither small nor insignificant, but they are used to working; many have worked at manual labor since an early age.

Maricela has worked in the fields since the second grade, and still does, while raising three children and attending English class. F'eliz was a corn and beans farmer in Mexico; here he goes to school in the morning and works as a field hand in the afternoon. Because there's a waiting list for classes in his town, Heraclio drives 50 miles to the night class after a day of working.

``Hi, Luis!''

``Hello, Manuel! How are you?''

The morning begins in a bustle of greetings. Rumaldo arranges the desks in a semicircle and Eulalia and the others help. Mar'ia gives the flowers fresh water, Ernesto cleans the blackboard, and I unload the day's books and papers, amid a lot of conversation, touching base from the day before.

WHILE English is the language of the classroom, the goal is communication, so pieces of Spanish and sometimes Chinese float on the air as we get settled.

``Maybe I working manana.''

``Cho-san,'' I greet Pai in his language.

``Good morning,'' he answers in English.

Today Ernesto is in charge of the attendance sheet and he fills it out, writing in the date, the hours, my name. It is passed around for each student to sign.

``You're too late,'' he tells Benjamin, who is just coming in. Benjamin sits down in a flood of greetings. Ernesto gives him the sheet to sign.

``It's never too late,'' I reply.

``How are you? Who are you?'' We play the careful listening game to sharpen their agility out on the street, to tell the small difference, and to learn to respond to what they actually hear, not what they expect to hear.

``Remember, `I don't know' is a good answer,'' I remind them. We review ``Huh? What? I don't understand. Please repeat,'' as ways to keep a conversation open; I act out the concept by demonstrating.

``Ask me a question,'' I tell one of the more experienced students.

``What's the date?'' he responds.

I drop my eyes. ``Conversation closed,'' I say, my eyes still averted. Suddenly my arms fly open, I look directly at each student, and say in a strong voice, ``I don't understand!'' Then I add, ``Conversation - open.''

Other days I toss an imaginary ball to each person as I ask a question, and they toss it back as they give the answer. ``A conversation is a job for two people,'' I say. They know ``job.'' I keep the language uncomplicated and manageable, building on what is known. What is known is surprising, and in order for it to show up, students get plenty of opportunity to respond creatively.

Long before anyone is expected to produce complex sentences, we are practicing ways to express ideas and feelings. We work with emotions and body language through role play and mime. Using a page of mime photographs from their dictionary, they imitate the faces, making their classmates guess which photo they are imitating, thus eliminating the necessity of pronouncing some more difficult words, like ``ecstasy.''

We make ``mood cubes'' out of folded index cards. They choose six different moods from the photos, copying the words from the book. Eudoxio, who at 54 is beginning his formal education, al-ways keeps his cube showing ``determined,'' which really fits him. Each morning we put the mood cubes on our desks and check each other. ``Fine'' doesn't suffice between friends. During the morning, as moods change, the cubes change and ``Hungry'' appears, or ``Proud.''

I use students to model for each other, to reduce the stress of trying to achieve native-like pronunciation, since communication is our goal. Once when we were practicing the sound of the ``th,'' only shy, soft-spoken Hijinio could do it. The other students said it was because he played the trumpet. This brought on a quick poll to see who played music. The next day we had an impromptu music session at break time.

THIS cooperative atmosphere builds trust and confidence, both within each student and within the group, which includes me. I act as facilitator, sometime-instigator, observer, and always, encourager. I never think in terms of what they don't know or can't do. We work with what we have, and emphasize what they do know, applying it to survival English skills.

Self-esteem, self-awareness, and confidence are major issues in this group of pre-beginners with little or no previous formal education. We begin with the alphabet, putting ourselves in alphabetical order, like a long snake. Later we do body order: Everyone has a card with a body part and we have to arrange ourselves from head to toe. English is spoken, but nobody is worrying. There is a lot of laughing every day as we carry out our tasks: to feel good and promote learning and acquisition doing it!

In the early stages they also learn to say what they do in their country, where their self-esteem is based. This can help them project a more vivid image of themselves here, even while experiencing language and culture shock. They learn ways to preserve their natural dignity in a society that may ask too many questions at times:

``Rumaldo, where were you last night?''

``I'd rather not say.''

``Do you have a bank account?''

``I'm sorry - that's my business.''

One day on an impulse, I handed my pointer to a student who was speaking softly and ineffectively. It is really difficult to mutter, ``I'm from Jalisco, Mexico,'' with a stick in your hand. His voice immediately took a strong and authoritative tone. He handed the stick to Hijinio and the same thing happened. Now whenever anyone speaks ineffectively, other students say, ``Give him the stick.'' Luis still puts his hand on his chest and bellows, ``I'm from Mexico!'' And no one ever gives him the teacher's stick.

English class at the Post Office, in the words of an advanced student, is ``Hectic because of hall traffic, and interesting because of so much activity. But there's not enough privacy.''

The high visibility of English class at the Post Office seems important and somewhat symbolic: Voluntarily learning a second language is about letting down cultural barriers, widening the possibilities for new jobs, new friends, new confidence.

This being done in full view of the public emphasizes that it is a public occasion - it is not just the private concern of a few individuals trying to improve their lives or meet the conditions of a new country.

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