Immigrants' first stop: the line for English classes
EAST ORANGE, N.J.
The Tower of Babel has relocated to the beginning class in English as a Second Language (ESL) at Jewish Vocational Service. Twelve students are crammed into school desks, trying to unscramble sentences on mimeographed sheets.Skip to next paragraph
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An Albanian woman whispers to a Russian man. The Bangladeshi woman swaps theories with an African gentleman. There is a whiff of English, a word here or there, but mostly the air beats with the nouns and verbs of distant lands.
Nina Kuzmich, here just one month from Belarus, leans toward Azza Mohammed from Sudan and asks in Russian if her answer is right. Ms. Mohammed nods sweetly behind her head scarf, not understanding a word.
"No! No russki!" Nancy Fisher, director of education and training, reminds Ms. Kuzmich gently.
"But I don't understand," Kuzmich replies in Russian.
Welcome to the center for emergency English.
The great immigration wave of the 1990s with 13.2 million newcomers is flooding classrooms where people can learn the Anglo-Saxon tongue. In 2000, 1.1 million adults studied in federally funded ESL programs (increasingly labeled English for Speakers of Other Languages ESOL to reflect people who are multilingual).
From New York City to Portland, Ore., immigrants' organizations and volunteer groups are facing intense demand from people desperate to learn the words that will help them win better jobs and decipher the customs and curiosities of American life. But funding isn't keeping up, and it can be a long wait to get into an ESL program.
In New York State, 1 million immigrants need English classes, but there are seats for only 50,000, a study for the New York Immigration Coalition found.
In Massachusetts, more than 14,000 residents have enrolled in English classes paid for by the government but 15,500 more have signed up, according to the state Department of Education.
"Immigrants recognize that English is the key to better jobs, to getting ahead and building a better life," says Barbara Strack, director of the Center for the New American Community at the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "It's for the benefit of the mainstream to help them. There's a mutual interest and we're really dropping the ball."
Here at Jewish Vocational Service in East Orange, N.J., as many as 500 students a year from South America, Bosnia, Iran, Bangladesh, the former Soviet Union, and beyond vie for all-day ESOL classes. With space tight, the emphasis is on helping students become comfortable enough with the language and culture to begin working. JVS also helps them find their first job.
"They're here 30 hours a week. If they're here five months, they're not Oxford scholars, but they know enough language to go out in the working world," Ms. Fisher says.
More advanced classes review tips on interviewing for jobs and filling out tax forms.
Students who linger beyond four to five months are urged to find another program. "If we had more funding, we would open more classes," Fisher says.
Community colleges and adult-education centers affiliated with local school districts are doing their best to satisfy the ESL demand. Years back, adult-education programs focused on preparing students for their high-school equivalency diploma. Now they host English classes filled with computer programmers from Ukraine and housekeepers from Ecuador.