Breaking down the language barrier

January 30, 2014 • Local News

Ann Turner helps Natalie Vail of China study for her citizenship test at the Roswell Literacy Council, Tuesday. (Mark Wilson Photo)

Learning English challenges  learners as well as instructors

Brenda Villegas Gutierrez, 28, moved to Roswell from Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, 10 years ago to join her father who was working in the states and had just completed immigration paperwork for his children.

At the time, she spoke barely a word of English.

“You feel, like, stupid when you go to any store and they ask you something and you don’t know what they say,” she says of her initial frustrations.

She quickly arranged for a tutor through the Roswell Literacy Council, a resource for learning literacy skills and English that she had heard about through friends and colleagues.

Gutierrez has since earned degrees in graphic design and pharmacy technology from Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, as well as made marked gains in employment.

According to 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 12 percent of Roswell residents are foreign-born and 37 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home.

Children who immigrate to the U.S. are usually able to learn English relatively quickly with the aid of special resources in schools as well as the constant exposure to the language that comes with being in an American classroom.

For adults, there are also resources. In Roswell, help with language learning can come from the Literacy Council, the Adult Basic Education program on the ENMU-R campus and conversation clubs at churches and the Roswell Public Library.

[auth] These resources provide language instruction, but can’t clear all the hurdles for adult English language learners.

Immigrants too old to enroll in K-12 schools have to work to support themselves. Some have children.

“Adults have to choose between making a living and going to school, sometimes,” says Nancy Alvarado, who teaches advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at ABE.

On top of all that, learning a language when you are no longer a child just isn’t that easy.

“I think they feel a lot of times that they are not as intelligent as their children, and I have to explain to them … that children learn easier as part of development,” she says.

She speaks from experience, having studied Spanish as an adult.

Students’ level of education in their mother tongue also plays a role, according to ESL instructors. Roswell Literacy Council Executive Director Andrae England said students literate in their first language tend to pick up new languages more quickly.

Roswell Hispano Chamber of Commerce President Romo Villegas said, until immigrants achieve fluency, resources in their native languages help new residents to navigate matters such as immigration paperwork.

On Tuesday, 17 students sat attentively in a classroom in the Adult Basic Education department as ESL instructor Maria Elena Ruiz spoke to them in Spanish about English grammar. Ruiz herself started as an ESL student at ABE.

The adult students, most of them women, are eager to share why they are learning English.

One woman says she wants to work as a nurse. A man says he wants to work in maintenance. Others have more basic reasons: One female student says that her daughter speaks only English. She wants to be able to communicate with her better and to help her with her homework.

There’s also the obvious benefit of being able to conduct daily business.

Literacy Council tutoring student Natalie Vale, of Jiangmen, China, where she managed a large restaurant until moving to the U.S. four years ago, says she looks forward to getting past the “I don’t know” moments.

ABE offers classes for free and accommodates the erratic schedules of students with rolling, year-round enrollment. Hilda Pacheco-Peeples, interim director of ABE, says such leniency is rare in adult remedial education programs. ABE has enrolled 133 students in ESL classes since July, and most years enrolls about 500.

While accessibility of education is of top-priority for the program, it can be hard to accommodate all students.

Elementary English classes such as the one taught by Ruiz are often heavy with Spanish, a reflection of the background of most ESL students at ABE. Students who don’t speak Spanish are immediately placed in more advanced classes where instruction is entirely conducted in English. These students tend to repeat the classes until they gain proficiency.

Pacheco-Peeples wishes the program had greater funding to offer more resources to students.

“I don’t think it’s enough,” she says, explaining that she would like the program to offer students more teachers, classes and materials.

The Literacy Council also faces quandaries over adequate access for students. England said last week that nine students were on the waiting list for tutors. That week, 36 students were scheduled to see tutors, she said.

“There’s always a need for tutors.”

Gutierrez studied English intensively while working various jobs and moving throughout the western states. Having planned on attending university in Mexico, she applied to ENMU-R a few years after beginning her language study and was rejected. She enrolled in English language classes at a college in Colorado, and eventually won acceptance to ENMU-R.

ESL teachers stress that it is the work of the students, not their instructors, that results in language learning success.

“They’re hard workers,” says Pacheco-Peeples.

Alvarado praised her past students for their feats. She said one woman, who had been a professional in Mexico, went on to get certified as a medical assistant and now works for a doctor’s office in town.

“Many, many, many students are successful,” she says.

Gutierrez ultimately landed a job filling out tax paperwork and, later, worked in a Roswell pharmacy. She was hired for the second job in part because the pharmacy needed an employee who could interface with Spanish-speaking clients. She is currently between jobs.

She commented that she recognizes the frustrations she once faced in her husband’s struggle to learn English.

“He’s shy, he feels like ‘I can’t.’”

She’s hopeful that he will gain command of the language. She said that, to her surprise, he recently purchased instructional software so he could study on his own.


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