New Americans from Gonzales to Lee learn English, shopping

`TODAY we are going shopping together,'' says Lillian Gonzalez to her classroom of adult immigrants. ``Let's make believe -- pretend -- that we are in the supermarket. Where are we, Julia?'' ``We are go-een to de supermarket,'' answers a motherly Hispanic, whose name is pronounced ``Hoolia.''

``No, let's pretend we are in the supermarket,'' says Ms. Gonzalez.

``We are een the supermarket,'' Julia says.

``What do we need?'' asks Ms. Gonzalez. The class does not hesitate.

``Money!'' they shout in accord. Their teacher smiles and points to an advertisement for laundry detergent she has taped on the blackboard.

``Can everybody see? What is this?''

``Yeah. Detergent,'' one man says.

``Wisk,'' another woman adds proudly. ``Wisk very good.''

Adult education for people new to this country has come a long way from the days when grown-up men and women were asked to recite poems meant for first-graders.

Today, it is pragmatic, consumer-oriented, and designed to bring America's immigrants into the mainstream of society as quickly as possible. There is less emphasis on grammar and sentence structure, and more on learning the language for day-to-day needs.

In New York City, there are waiting lists for the English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes offered by the city's Board of Education, the City University of New York (CUNY) system, public libraries, and community organizations. An estimated 125,000 new immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- arrived in New York last year.

``We teach Russians, Indo-Chinese, Cubans, Greeks,'' says Helen Weinberg, director of the Board of Education's Office of Adult and Continuing Education. The city and state spend over $20 million on adult-literacy programs, which include ESL. Of the 40,000 that go through her programs annually, Ms. Weinberg estimates that 55 to 60 percent are ESL students.

``We always have a waiting list,'' she says. Her office ``could easily spend our entire budget on ESL.''

In the book ``The Education of Hyman Kaplan,'' Leo Rosten's gently hilarious classic of the immigrant experience in New York City, the newcomers learning English were largely Southern and Eastern Europeans. The relentlessly cheerful Mr. Kaplan plowed determinedly through classes, though his command of English and his thick accent perpetually flummoxed his teacher.

Today's immigrants have changed. In Queens, where they now flock as they did to Manhattan's Lower East Side a century ago, there is a solid page of Kaplans in the phone book. But there are 1 pages of Gonzalez family names. The more than four pages of Lees include some Williams and Georges, but names like Sang Sook Lee or Liang Hui-Hwa Lee are in the majority. There is also more than a page of Singhs, people with Indian roots.

The night classes at Intermediate School 227 in Jackson Heights are filled mostly by Hispanics -- Central and South Americans -- with more than a smattering of Chinese, Koreans, Afghans, Pakistanis, Haitians, and Poles. Like Hyman Kaplan and his classmates, these students bring a wide variety of experiences and expectations to the classroom. Some have been lawyers or teachers in their old country; others were impoverished farmers. The age range is wide.

``My berday ees Ogust 20, 1948,'' says Carmen in a basic-English class.

``My berth-day is Nov. 14, 1965,'' says Rafael.

But student comments about occupations in another class indicate how savvy these new Americans are. The teacher has asked them what kind of experience a person needs to become a secretary.

``Depand how kind of work she do,'' says Maria, in front. ``In some places she don't need much and they pay cheap.''

The next occupation considered is a teacher.

``Skills and talents?'' Ms. Johnson asks.

``Yes!'' a Haitian says with a smile.

The class shouts out specific skills -- writing, typing, knowledge, patience, public speaking.

``A good accent,'' the Haitian adds. He is also reverent of continuing education. ``A teacher must be reading every day, to read you the books. When a doctor finish, he has still to read.''

Sandy Adelman, director of the ESL programs in North Queens, says she has deep admiration for the immigrant students who are so eager to learn.

``Every adult who ever steps into a classroom, whether for basic education or literacy, is admitting a failure to read and write, for example,'' Mrs. Adelman says. ``It takes a tremendous amount of courage. They are willing to take a risk, willing to fail publicly, like Hyman Kaplan.

``Also, Hyman Kaplan was very determined. He knew what he wanted to accomplish for himself. Our students are the same.'' These people came to escape poverty and political repression, and they are not content with just floating along, she says.

That's why, like Hyman Kaplan, today's immigrants might fluster a teacher by talking about the qualities of Wisk laundry detergent -- something they are familiar with -- when the teacher is trying to discuss shopping in general.

``We are so American we forget what it is to be a stranger,'' says Adelman.

The aspirations of today's immigrants certainly match those of the past. Pedronilo Llorente is a 60-year-old ``ma-cheen-ist'' from Venezuela. He is eager to improve his English because his boss told him he needs to learn how to work on the sophisticated machinery he encounters in the United States.

But like many immigrants, Mr. Llorente is also painfully aware of American attitudes toward his countrymen. Although he says Americans are friendly, he wants to know why they don't seem to like poor Venezuelans.

``Nobody like to be down,'' he says. The Americans ``only like the highs.''

There are many cultural lessons for immigrants to learn, and much of this comes through ESL classes. A Hispanic girl giggles while a teacher explains that the term ``salesman'' is sexist. Adelman says Afghan men are not accustomed to sitting with women in classes. And refugees from Central America do not like to fill out forms, since they have sometimes seen family members disappear when the government found out things not to its liking.

At the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side (the nation's first, founded three years before Jane Addams's Hull House in 1886), there are classes on home management (finding the things that make their new home a home), child care and development (helping parents understand the US educational system and understand how children are viewed in the United States), nutrition (where to find food they are accustomed to, and information about new foods), consumer education, and budgeting.

``Our clients are usually very, very poor,'' says Vasthi Reyes of University Settlement House. ``We introduce them to things like coupons.''

In fact, many of the new immigrants are illiterate in their own language, which has changed some of the emphasis in ESL teaching, says Charles Cairns of CUNY's Queens College. CUNY became aware that these immigrants were not making much progress in traditional ESL classes, which assumed they were literate at least in their own language.

``ESL has always been the stepchild of foreign-language teaching, and people thought the way to teach it was to teach it like they had learned French or Latin,'' Dr. Cairns says. ``But it is an entirely different situation, where these students need to solve immediate, everyday problems.''

Like several ESL experts, he is worried about the trend toward making English the ``official'' language through ballot measures like Proposition 63 in California. He says it could make it more difficult to get funding for ESL classes.

``English is our official language,'' says Adelman, adding that most immigrants are quite eager to learn it. ``It is survival, and they know that.''

Some worry that the attitude that fosters ballot measure like Prop. 63 also means that Americans, as in the past, do not appreciate the richness of their immigrant heritage.

One of the ``major tragedies'' of today's immigrants is that they are not being viewed as valuable resources, says Cairns. For example, even though many Hispanics are ``illiterate'' in terms of the written word, he says they have tremendous linguistic talents, based on their oral cultures.

Artistic accounts of their culture in poems, songs, and stories are complex and beautiful. But only recently does he see an effort to write these tales down.

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