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Immigrants learn English, gain hope

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Two hundred and nineteen years after the Boston Tea Party, a group of Cambodian immigrants in a makeshift classroom are trying to comprehend why those disgruntled Bostonians dressed as Indians and hurled crates of tea into the harbor.

Like humble converts mastering the rituals of a new religion, the immigrants are earnest but confused. As part of their English class, they are learning strange words and phrases as they study their new ancestors, these Boston patriots.

But more than that, each of them is slowly transforming into another person who talks and thinks differently. An American.

At this English class, held during the immigrants' lunch break at a St. Petersburg seafood factory, the dozen students learn how to survive in a new land and slough off old identities and loyalties.

They represent a tiny fraction of fledgling Americans. Every year, 1-million immigrants and refugees (and about another million illegal immigrants) come to America. About 1-million are enrolled in English classes nationally. In Florida, destination of the third-largest number of immigrants after California and Texas, 113,000 immigrants are taking English courses.

Although the Boston Tea Party seems a remote subject, the students respond when the class begins to cover issues like fairness in government and rebellion against tyranny.

When their teacher, Wendell Gingrich, asks why the angry Bostonians revolted, Phekhong Chang has an answer in recently acquired staccato English. "They want the tax not high," she says. "If the tax high, they can't have tea. They can't pay money to buy tea."

Gingrich talks to them about taxation without representation. No one in the class can pronounce the phrase, but minutes after he has explained its meaning in simple English, the class is abuzz denouncing its unfairness.

"In Cambodia we pay tax but never vote to King Sihanouk," Bui Chang Luk says indignantly. "King get his father's job. No election."

Gingrich smiles proudly. It will be a long time before his students become fluent in English, and possibly they will never lose their Khmer accents. But thanks to the grammar school-level history and civics texts he has been using, they already identify with what being an American means.

"They have seen and experienced in their countries the kinds of things like fighting for liberty that we here read only in textbooks," Gingrich says. "I try to show them what America is about. They have more of an understanding of what America is than many people who have lived here all their lives."

In their way, the class of Cambodians unconsciously gives their teacher a lesson in classically American values like self-betterment through hard work. It is their lunch break at the General Mills Restaurants Inc.'s seafood factory at Bayboro, where they sort and process shrimp for local restaurants. But instead of taking time off for a meal, they troop into a room in a nearby building carrying folders, a lingering smell of fish and an eagerness to become another person. There, they take free English lessons from Gingrich, a retired principal who works part time for the adult education department.

Their classroom, crowded with a few tables and chairs and a tiny blackboard in a corner, looks less inspiring than the colorful classrooms their children study in, and the classes run less than an hour a day. But they are happy. The cell-like classroom is their escape into the larger world of opportunity outside, where better jobs, larger paychecks and mortgage payments await them.

Fitting in

The class doesn't just learn new words like "revolt," "wet paint" and "thaw tanks." For the students, learning English is a way of grasping new ideas and familiarizing themselves with the ways and values of their new homeland. It is a way of fitting in.

And in some ways, English 101 is a way of discovering a new self, even regaining adulthood. Many immigrants feel demoted to the status of their own children when they come to America. Within months, though, young children become fluent in their new language while their parents continue to struggle against feelings of ineptness and dependence.

Mrs. Bui Chang Luk wants to learn English so she can communicate better with her two sons, who speak English nearly all the time, including to answer her when she talks to them in Khmer. She came to America 10 years ago as a refugee and, like the rest of her family, is a U.S. citizen. But it isn't enough that she can now read billboards and food labels. Her children, products of American schools, have outstripped her. It embarrasses her that even her 5-year-old speaks English more ably than she.

Once, her 15-year-old son became angry when she tried to tell him something, and what he said upset her deeply. "He say, "This is United States. You want speak to me, you speak in English.'


Like Mrs. Luk, many other immigrants tend to live in ethnic enclaves and work jobs where speaking skills are so marginal that they hardly get to learn English, much less practice it. Luis Aguas was a seaman in Colombia; he works as an attendant in a St. Petersburg nursing home. His wife, Maria Quintero, works as a hotel maid. Teresa Shaub, from Poland, cleaned the rooms of a motel she and her husband own on St. Petersburg Beach. All say they immigrated to join relatives and to seek a better life for their children. For them, English classes are a doorway to a wide world of opportunity.

But other immigrants decided to learn only after they realized they had no choice. Janina Bawoski of Largo was a grocery store manager in Poland before she came to America seven years ago. She has a job sewing mattresses, which does not require her to speak much. For years, she lived in isolation with her 12-year-old daughter, Kinga, and close friends as her only connections to the world outside. But she had to come out of her shell five months ago when she decided to take a civics test to become eligible for U.S. citizenship.

"I need stay for this country," she explained. "I like this country. People no understand me, so I must learn English." She spent three months reading and memorizing the fifth-grade level civics books immigrants are expected to know. And she answered all questions at the oral test, except one. Asked to name the two U.S. senators from Florida, she could only think of Connie Mack and forgot Bob Graham. To her relief, she still passed the test.

Now, Ms. Bawoski takes night language lessons, made available free to all immigrants. Although immigrants have been coming to America for centuries, free lessons on a national scale have been offered only since 1964, when the federal government pledged to give states money to help people overcome language handicaps.


A century ago, the emphasis was on Americanizing immigrants as quickly as possible. They received civics and American history lessons in factories and ethnic enclaves, but English was something to be picked up on one's own, said Ray Mohl, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton who specializes in immigration.

"It's a myth that everyone just assimilated," Mohl said. Some groups, like the Germans, lived in enclaves and had their own German-language schools, rousing protests similar to those seen now among people who oppose Spanish instruction in schools. But German-Americans disbanded their schools when World War I broke out and it wasn't expedient to stand out as different.

"Ultimately they all assimilate," Mohl said of immigrants. "It takes two to three generations for the process to work."

Although English lessons would have been desirable in the past, they have become essential now, said Joyce Watson-Nutta, an administrator of the English language program for Pinellas County.

"Jobs then didn't require people to go beyond a basic reading level," she said. "Now, you don't have those kinds of factories. People have to know how to answer the telephone, talk to customers, use a cash register. It's essential if they want to get a job." The students she sees at adult education centers mostly have day jobs but still show up for three or more hours of language classes in the evenings. Bus services are sparse at night, and students often bike or get friends to drop them off at school. When it rains heavily, attendance falls.

Highly motivated

Florida spends $150-million a year providing adult education, and 113,000 immigrants _ mostly in Dade County _ take advantage of it. The 1986 amnesty that legalized millions of illegal aliens led to a 50 percent surge in enrollment because immigrants who want to become citizens are required to have an elementary school knowledge of English.

"If these individuals cannot find a place in society where they can provide for themselves, it may cost us more money in public assistance, health, corrections," said Jim Dodd, a program specialist at Florida's Education Department in Tallahassee. "They're already literate. We get them over a feeling of being dependent, and they are so highly motivated I think it works very well." Classes are made available in local schools, and sometimes during breaks or after work in factories if employers are agreeable.

The immigrants' eagerness to succeed and become accepted in American society defines the language classes. "Sometimes, it's group therapy as much as it's an English class," says Paige Oliver, who teaches a night class at Dixie Hollins Evening Adult Center. Students talk about job rejections, parenting, and the frustration of not being understood by others. And they applaud those who make a down payment on a home or a car, or get U.S. citizenship _ all notches of success.

"My daughter she talk on phone for one hour," says Luis Aguas of his 13-year-old. "I don't understand. In America children talk, talk, talk on telephone. When I tell her, she say, "Da-ad!'


"But you know," he confesses with secret pride. "She speak very good English. She correct me all the time."

Learning to dial 911

Ms. Oliver focuses on teaching English through survival skills: how to fill out a job application, what to say when you call an employer about job openings, how to make an appointment with a dentist.

One night, for three straight hours, she schooled each of her students on what to do in an emergency. "They said they would call 911. But they didn't know what to say after that," she said. So the students learned to say "Are you okay?" to an imaginary victim, and also to tell an operator, "I am at 66th Street and Ulmerton."

For other students, learning English was not so much a way of finding their way around as it was finding themselves.

Mei Chen came to America with her family 12 years ago from Taiwan. She spent the last 10 years rearing her children in New York City and never had much opportunity to learn English herself. The children came first, and she pushed all three of them; all earned scholarships and eventually, doctorates.

"It was not easy," she said recalling the despair of her teen-aged children, who spoke no English when they came. "I remember my second daughter. She cry because she cannot understand teacher in school. That day, I go to bookstore, I buy dictionary." Her children stayed up long hours and memorized the dictionary.

When Mrs. Chen and her husband moved to St. Petersburg, she decided it was her turn to learn. "So I can understand Americans, and Americans can understand me," she explains. Mrs. Chen kept a dictionary in her purse and learned to read a new alphabet from left to right instead of top to bottom. She is embarrassed that at 54, she is far older than other students at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, but she boasts her linguistic achievements: Now she can read Time magazine, and she has seen Gone with the Wind twice. "Second time, I understand it more."

A teacher who is learning

Teresa Shaub, a former teacher in Poland, came to St. Petersburg Beach in 1979, where she and her husband bought a motel. She began taking classes a year ago and puts in eight hours of study every day. "I want to become a complete person," she says. "How can I live in America and not know English? I want to understand everything. Not just "this is door,' "this is floor.'

" Recently, she read Mutiny on the Bounty and Huckleberry Finn _ "in the original" _ she boasts. And there is another notch that tells her she now has the skills of a native. "Now I can understand everything in The Golden Girls!"

Mrs. Shaub hopes to go to college and get an English degree. But as she nudges closer to her American dream, she feels betrayed that her oldest daughter is becoming American in another unexpected way. The 18-year-old didn't want to go to college. She wanted to earn money, so she left working at their motel. "Hard work. You break your nails," Mrs. Shaub explains. Her daughter waits tables at a restaurant.

The other immigrants, too, hope to get on. Mrs. Bui already leads her group at the assembly line in the seafood factory. Luis Aguas wants to be able to take courses to become an electrician or mechanic. Maria Quintero wants to become a beautician.

Their tongues may feel tied, but the new Americans all dream. Janina Bawoski dreams of being able to speak fluently one day with a vast circle of friends, but for now she doesn't even feel sure enough to participate in PTA meetings. She would like to be able to help her daughter Kinga with her homework, but is relieved her report card tells her she doesn't need to. For Mrs. Bawoski, success has meant small pay raises and a move to a more spacious apartment, but she is happy Kinga will become more than the mattress-maker and store manager her mother was. "She could be doctor, lawyer, anything," she beams proudly. "You can become anything in America."