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I've heard, both from pundits and from acquaintances, the sentiment of "learn to speak English or go back where you came from."  I'm a left-wing nuttjob, and I also tend to over-think things, so even when I was apolitical, I usually thought, "But, how?"  I took two years of Spanish in high school, and that in no way made me fluent.  I didn't have a job, or two, or kids to take care of, and I was taking formal classes.  Fortunately, my native land is pretty stable, and I don't think I'm going to be forced to flee and take asylum in Spain, let alone Belgium where I know absolutely nothing of the language.

In early January, there was a blurb in the local paper; the local literacy center was looking for volunteers.  It's something I'd though about doing for a while in some form or another.  Two days after reading the blurb, I was laid off, so hey, free time.  Tonight I finished the last of six training sessions, 2.5 hours each.  In the next couple of weeks, I should be matched with a student.  Some random facts that stuck in my mind from the trainings:

There were 12 people in my class, another 12 or so in a second class.  Each will likely be matched with one student, although some take on more than one at a time.  The waiting list of students is well over 100.  With the exception of some native-speaking high-school dropouts who are mandated to be there as a condition of parole or some such, they are all incredibly eager to have a tutor.  Some are taking class at the center and want extra help to keep up or to just learn more quickly; some aren't taking classes because they don't have time because they are working 14 hours a day or have kids.

The tutor who talked to us tonight has had three students.  The first was a high school principal in El Salvador.  She fled to the United States, and was working at McDonald's.  The other two are friends being tutored at the same time, two young women from Egypt, Coptic Christians with one-year-old children.  They are decent speakers, but they want to be perfect; they want to talk to average native speakers and have them not know the women have only been here a couple of years.  Their husbands have been here longer, have good jobs, but rarely speak English at home; this is partly because they want their children to be bilingual, and the kids will be so inundated outside the home with English that they would need to hear Arabic at home to learn it.  Not so good for the mothers, though; most of their social circle is their church, where of course everyone speaks Arabic.  They want to meet more native speakers and practice, but where do you do that?  It's not like they are going to hit the bars or nightclubs, and how safe is it to just strike up a conversation with someone at the grocery store?  They are both taking placement tests for community college; if they do well enough on the English portion to be admitted, they want to work in health services.  Of course, if they are admitted, that's a great place to practice English.  But their English has to be good enough to get in in the first place.

As I said, I have a lefty bias, but it doesn't seem like a lefty-righty question to me.  They are here, they are here legally, they want to be part of the American culture, they want to contribute, pay taxes.  They are doing everything they can to reach those goals.  But it's not going to happen overnight, and it's going to be incredibly hard.  I think about friends who say, "Man, I need to lose 20 pounds, but after work and errands and taking the kids to soccer, I don't have time to cook real meals and hit the gym."  Heck, I've been that person.

Anyway, I'm nervous.  I don't like new things.  But all I'm going to be doing is talking to someone in my own language for an hour or two a week.  I'm a wimp.

I expect to be babbling about this over the coming weeks.


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Violet Wilson

October 2016



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