Literacy program helps immigrants overcome language barriers

A quote from Nelson Mandela on the wall of a classroom at the Indo-American Center reminds people the importance of education.

By Shanshan Wang

Zubeda Begum, who came to the United States from Pakistan 15 years ago, believes that practice makes perfect. That is why the 67-year-old has just passed examinations and graduated from the ESL (English as a Second Language) program at the Indo-American Center in West Rogers Park.

“I learn so many things,” Begum said. “I can speak easily now.” Begum added that sometimes she can be very shy but improving her English has given her much more confidence.

At the Indo-American Center, the ESL program is offered free at four different levels to immigrants from 34 countries representing 36 languages, including refugees from Iraq, Syria, Burma and Nepal. It currently has about 100 registered students.

“The majority of them want better everyday inclusion and interaction outside their homes to feel comfortable talking to another person at the grocery store or to their kids’ teacher,” said Laura Smith, literacy volunteer coordinator, who has been an instructor since 2008 and became full-time in 2013.

Lack of English proficiency doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem since these immigrants can use their native language at home and their children, who are fluent in English, can help with language translation or interpretation.

Still, that doesn’t mean that these immigrants don’t want to have more language proficiency to help them communicate more easily with their children and neighbors. Some also hope clearer English will lead to a better job, as well as facilitate their social adjustment and integration into a new society.

Maria Gasca, 60, from Mexico, said she came to the center to study English for herself. Although she has been living in the United States for nearly 30 years and all of her children speak fluent English, the language is still a barrier for her.

“When I went to the doctor, nobody went with me,” Gasca said, adding that situations like this one are why she is taking the English classes at the center. Gasca came to IAC after the last school she attended closed due to state budget cuts that also impacted IAC programs.

Like many other English language students, speaking and writing English is challenging. “They can understand more than they can express themselves,” Smith said. So she suggests they immerse themselves in the language by listening to English songs, radio programs or watching television shows.

For beginners, one of the difficulties is grasping the subtle differences between words that share similar pronunciations and spellings. “Like today, they have some trouble understanding ‘curve’ and ‘carve’,” said Sama Pateo, a freshman at Adler University who has been volunteering as an English instructor at IAC for five months.

Outside the classrooms, some students write down new words or phrases they encounter daily and will consult their teachers later. Some get help from family members and classmates. Two students from Puerto Rico and India have become friends and often text each other after class to practice English, Smith said.

Nevertheless, Pateo said this is not just an issue about students equipping themselves with the ability to speak a different language. “It helps with their self-esteem as well,” Pateo said. “When I was teaching the beginners class, they were very proud of themselves when they got even the simplest words like ‘clock’, ‘family’, or the difference between ‘daughter’ and ‘son’. I could see from their faces how happy they were.”

Photo at top: A quote from Nelson Mandela on the wall of a classroom at the Indo-American Center reminds people of the importance of education. (Shanshan Wang/Medill)