Refugees learn English - 'Star Trek' style

Adult refugees in Utica, N.Y., are learning a new language at the same time their children are, and sometimes in more interesting ways.

At the the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, teachers have been creative about linking the study of English to aspects of US culture.

One instructor, a self-confessed "Trekkie," introduced his class to old episodes of Star Trek, for example. The students became so interested that they finally participated in a day-long debate in English as to which was the best of the Star Trek characters.

"They were so excited we couldn't get them to leave at the end of the day," says Richard Sessler, the center's executive director.

Refugees are required to take at least two or three months of publicly funded English classes in order to receive social-service benefits. At the center, classes are full of Bosnians, Kosovars, Russians, Vietnamese and others learning to pronounce the days of the week and conjugate simple verbs in English. In general, the adults learn more slowly than their children and early on often rely on them as translators.

But with hard work most make progress. "They struggle but they get there," says Lidja Hamzic, a Macedonian refugee who taught English on the university level in Europe, and now teaches English-as-a-second-language in Utica. One student, a Russian chemical engineer, is already able to form complex sentences. "These are very bright people," she says.

Bosnians in particular have proved adept at learning a new language, says Mr. Sessler, especially because many lived in Germany before relocating to the US and have had recent practice at language study. Also, he says, "They're very gregarious and love to entertain." He says that being able to communicate with their new neighbors is a priority.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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