ESL Classes Offer More than English: Students Find Friendship, Self-worth and Community

By: Liz Hall, AmeriCorps VISTA, Literacy Action of Central Arkansas

Echoing through the halls of the former schoolhouse at St. Edward Catholic Church are laughter, worldly accents, and joyful sounds that are certainly intriguing. Those sounds come from a typical class of students from Literacy Action of Central Arkansas learning English as a second language. St. Edward in downtown Little Rock has become a hotspot for newcomers to Central Arkansas, with classes available on different days and at different times to tutor students who want to improve or learn to speak English. It has also become something even more important – a way to build confidence and friendships in a safe place at a time when you may feel you are on an island by yourself.  Language barriers affect work life, personal life, and social life and can leave a person feeling isolated from the rest of the community.

According to The Pew Research Center, as of 2015 there were more than 40 million immigrants residing in the U.S., and by 2065 that number is projected to be 78 million. People from all over the world come to U.S. looking for a better opportunity. Being able to speak, read, and write English is fundamental to having a successful career and social life. ESL classes are being taught throughout the US in school classrooms. But what about the adults who come to the U.S. without English skills? These issues are being addressed throughout the US by nonprofit organizations like Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, which serves around 400 ESL students a year.

The U.S. Census reports that in Arkansas between 2012-2016, 4.7% of the overall population were foreign-born residents. In Pulaski County alone, 8.11% of the population speaks a non-English language in their home. Students at Literacy Action have expressed the frustration that goes along with having a language barrier and the need for ESL classes.

Throughout the week, you will find Céline an ESL student at Literacy Action, attending classes at St. Edwards Catholic Church or St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. Her English is quite good, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had her share of struggles while trying to find employment. During a tutor training class, Céline spoke candidly about how in France “she was someone, she mattered, and here she is no one.” In France, Céline has the equivalent of a Bachelor degree in Public Relations, Journalism and Communications. However, as for many immigrants, that degree doesn’t translate in the U.S.

After arriving in Arkansas a little over two years ago, Céline was excited to get started on her job hunt. She wanted to be a part of her new community. Her first job was for company that closed its doors with no notice and never paid her for her work. Her second attempt to work was with a travel agency. She made it through her third round of interviews, but it turned out that they were “more interested in gaining knowledge from her than hiring her,” and after the third interview the company informed her they didn’t have the money to hire her. Her final job prospect was with a hotel company. She was offered a job but she would be working “crazy hours, and paid low wages” not to mention she is vastly overqualified for the job. Even though she is an advanced English speaker she still feels the language barrier kept her from finding a rewarding job.

Disappointed and discouraged, Céline has not continued her job search; instead she went searching for something else to occupy her time. That’s how she ended up at Literacy Action. The ESL classes offered by Literacy Action have provided her daily socialization with other ESL students in the community while improving her English. She says being able to come to these classes has greatly improved her life here in Arkansas. “I love the classes, the students, the teachers and it’s just a very good life experience. I don’t know what I would do without them.”

Mersey is from Brazil and came to the U.S. in December 2017. She wants to work, but she says she “doesn’t feel confident with her English yet.” She does feel like she’s making progress with her tutor.  Learning English is important to Mersey because “people don’t speak Portuguese everywhere, but English is a universal language and if you know it you can go anywhere and communicate with people.”  Similar to Céline, Mersey’s degree is in Journalism, Radio and TV and she worked at a university in Brazil in the journalism department. She has attended ESL classes at St. Margaret’s every week for the last two months. She feels the classes give her a chance to speak English and learn about American culture. “When I am around other Brazilians I speak Portuguese, but in the classes I have opportunities to practice speaking English with people from all over the world.” Mersey enjoys learning English and would like to tutor people in Portuguese in the future.

Suwanee is from Thailand and has lived in the United States for four years. She has regularly attended classes at Literacy Action for a year and a half. With a degree in science, she was a research engineer while living in Sweden before coming to the states. Due to her visa status, she is unable to work while in the U.S. and, due to a lack of confidence in her English skills, she doesn’t quite feel comfortable working yet. She has been coming to ESL classes regularly and volunteers at a food pantry to practice English. She misses having deep conversations because she doesn’t have enough vocabulary yet to fully express the way she feels. When a person is missing the vocabulary to answer more than basic questions, it’s hard to make real connections with people.

Veronica is a 34-year-old lawyer from Ecuador who has been in the United States for one year. When she arrived in the U.S. she had no English skills, but she has worked extremely hard everyday to improve her English literacy skills. She says “homework is an important part of learning English,” and she works on it daily. She recommends listening to the radio or TV because hearing the language spoken is hard to comprehend. Currently, Veronica is working in a bakery to save for college and improve her English. She has three goals for herself, and she’s patiently chipping away at them one by one. The first goal was to get her driver’s license, which she did the first time she took her test. Her second goal is to pass the TOEFL exam so that she can achieve her third goal of attending college and getting a degree in Human Relations and Business that she can use stateside.

Every student says the same thing: the ESL classes offered by Literacy Action are a necessity. They improve English literacy skills, but they also provide so much more than that. They provide friendship, a sense of self-worth, and an opportunity to be involved in the Little Rock community.

As Céline told me, “I want to be involved in the community in a more efficient way, not only receiving, but giving, too.” Due to her advanced English, Céline recently became a trained tutor for Literacy Action to start giving back to others who are learning English.

Veronica (right) and her classmate, Jose (left), participate in a lesson on synonyms at St. Edward Catholic Church.