Welcome to English class   (2007)

  • Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama talks to a group of Thai Buddhist monks in Dharmsala, India, Saturday, May 21, 2016. The Thai monks, who follow a form of Buddhism different from the Tibetan tradition, prayed together with the Tibetan leader for the first time. A group of Thai monks started their foot march to the Indian district of Ladakh to promote world peace. (AP Photo/ Ashwini Bhatia)

Published: 8/19/2016 7:40:25 PM

Welcome to English Class (Dec. 29, 2007)

This feature story grew out of  acquaintance with the Cambodian monks, who I volunteered to drive came to the Center for New Americans in Greenfield two or three times a week on my way to work. Those two years driving the three saffron-robed monks in the back seat was filled with some delightful conversations during which I came to appreciate their lessons and imagine the possibilities of a story based on visits to the class over several months. How rewarding an experience that was, getting to know this array of newcomers from a mix of cultures. I also came to appreciate teacher Ariel Nelson’s work and commitment to helping her students learn, and also got some insight into the wonderful cultural interplay in the classroom .


The raucous voices of the middle-school students playing outdoors flow through the open window into the classroom, where five adult students seated around six long tables are intent on filling in blank calendar sheets.

"Today is Wednesday, September fifth -- five," says their teacher, Ariel Nelson. "Today is the first day of English class."

The students are seated inside an upstairs classroom at the Greenfield Community Youth Center on Sanderson Street. Overhead are ceiling tiles that have been recently painted with fanciful, colorful designs. This is where Nelson will spend the next 14 weeks introducing these and other students not only to the English language, but also American culture.

She begins by handing out labels to the five students: Aliona Petcu of Moldova, Olimpiu Sabau of Romania, Magalyn Cruz of Puerto Rico, Galina Stuga of the Ukraine and Cambodian monk Eath Thorng.

The slight, curly-haired teacher in flip-flops opens this beginners English for Speakers of Other Languages class by asking her students, "Can you write your name on the sticker, please?" None of them fully understand her. So, she shows them her label, with "Ariel" marked in blue.

"Welcome to English class," she begins, speaking slowly and clearly. "My name is Ariel. Tell me your name."

Blank stares from faces that are Asian, Eastern European, Latin.

"I am from Vermont, north of Massachusetts. My name is Ariel. I want you to say, My name is -- I am from -- OK? My name is "

"My name is Olimpiu," says the boyishly round-faced man in a plaid short-sleeve shirt and plaid pants. "I am from Romania." Pause "Olim-pi-u," he repeats, as his Cambodian, Russian, Moldovan and Puerto Rican classmates pronounce "Olimpiu" softly. "This name from Greece."

"My name Thorng Eath. Eath Thorng," says the nervous Cambodian monk, dressed in a bright orange robe, his gray hair shaven. He uses his left hand to hide his mouth shyly.

Nelson, prompting her new students, one by one, to say their names, gently asks them to repeat: "E-ath Thorng. E-ath Thorng." Then, she asks, "Where are you from?"

"I from Cambodia," he offers quietly, with a big smile.

Eath, who arrived in this country in 2003, will be joined next week by fellow monk Pheap Phorn, who arrived in 2005 and is today taking a test for a driver's license.

(Both are repeating this class after taking it last summer with a third monk from Leverett, Soeun Vong, who was in the intermediate ESL class earlier this morning and is now in another room to learn about computers. That class is taught by Bussarakum Humphrey, who arrived here from Thailand a dozen years ago.)

After John Preston, a tall, gray-haired class volunteer, introduces himself as "John, from the United States," the students around the tables continue:

"I am Magalyn. I come from Puerto Rico. Is is my second language. My daughter live in Greenfield. Have two sons. Three! Three sons." She laughs, having caught her mistake.

"My name Galina. I from Ukraine. I work in garden in Ukraine. My son live in Ukraine, he have two sons. He go to a school, is nice boys."

"My name is Aliona. I from Moldova." The 24-year-old woman, whose husband and brother will begin coming to classes in the weeks to come, arrived in this country less than a month earlier. A former paper-towel factory worker who resembles Meryl Streep, she is due to give birth to a baby girl in mid-December.

After writing a series of introductory questions on the blackboard, Nelson asks her class to ask each other their names, where they're from and where they live now. For the first of many four-afternoon-a-week classes, students pair up, repeating questions back and forth in a goulash of foreign accents, mispronunciations and lighthearted interplay as they try out the language.

Paired with Aliona for a few minutes, Olimpiu speaks Romanian, which is similar to Moldovan. He lived in Austria for six months before coming to this country two months ago, so he knows German. The 39-year-old student also speaks some Hungarian and Yugoslavian. But, in this polyglot class, the only language anyone's supposed to hear is English.

"Where are you FROM?' repeats Preston to Magalyn.

Eath tells Galina, "I live in Leverett temple." She looks back blankly. Nelson explains, "church."

Before the first two-hour class is out, Nelson will distribute calendars that are missing the names of the days at the top of each column. These will be placed in their blue binders for practice at home.

The class goes over the days of the week.

"What day is it today?" Nelson asks. "What is the day?"

"Wed-nes-day," answers Olimpiu, his boyish face beaming proudly.

"Very good. What is the date? The date?"

The answer comes from Magalyn, just as proudly.

"Six September."

Nelson goes to the blackboard to help correct this juxtaposition to the preferred Sept. 6, showing with her hand that the "6 September" style used in other cultures is reversed here. Then, she calls for a volunteer to write the complete day and date on the blackboard, an exercise she'll repeat each day.

Olimpiu volunteers, walks up to the blackboard and writes first "6/9/07," then erases it and writes "9/6/07" before Nelson asks him to write it out fully.

This done, she turns back to her class.

"What day is tomorrow?" she asks.

"Tursday," answers Aliona, demurely.

"Thursday," the teacher corrects her. THH. THursday. It's that THH."

Around the room, students from around the world repeat -- "THH," "THH" -- trying to master the consonant blend.

"THH. It's very difficult," says Nelson, as THough her students don't know THis. "THH: Put your tongue between your teeth."

To Eath, she suggests, "Stick your tongue out," to help him master the sound. The 65-year-old monk laughs, but tries after Nelson demonstrates what his tongue is and how to show it.

"This sound, you use a lot in English. It's important to practice."

Turning their attention back to their calendars, Nelson drills her students on the days of the week, getting them to repeat each day's name.

"Do you come to class on Friday?" she asks.

Back comes a surprisingly assertive "NO!" from Magalyn. "Free!"

She laughs, and there's laughter around the room. Then, as a way of familiarizing themselves with the words, the teacher instructs everyone to write "NO CLASS" in each Friday box in their calendars.

Olimpiu, ever-impish, writes "FREE" in for every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

It's about survival

Nelson, who grew up in Bethel, Vt., got a taste of what her students are going through when she traveled to Spain at age 16, not understanding one word of Spanish. Later, she went to live in Senegal for a year.

"It was extremely stressful," recalled the 34-year-old teacher. "Both were such intense experiences, where you revert back to being a 4-year-old: I don't know how to introduce myself to people properly, I don't know if I should take my shoes off, I don't know the rituals around Africa about using bathrooms. I was living out in the bush and we didn't have running water. I was feeling like a little kid again, as a woman in my late 20s."

Learning a new language as they adjust to a new culture are realities Nelson can identify with.

"I teach based on what they want to learn," explains Nelson, who earned a master's degree in teaching Spanish and teaching English as a Second Language from the School for International Training in Brattleboro Vt., and then taught Spanish and French at Great Falls Middle School in Turners Falls until 1 years ago.

At the Center for New Americans, she plans the week's lessons based on what students report as immediate needs.

"It's about survival now," she said. "Do you need to fill out (a form to get) a checking account? We learn to name body parts, because they have to go to the doctor. It's learning to make an appointment, taking to the doctor, calling on the telephone."

In the intermediate class, where students are from Vietnam, Taiwan, Moldova, Cambodia, China, the Ukraine, El Salvador, Kosovo and Tibet, she's teaching about the U.S. Constitution to prepare for their citizenship exams, helping them fill out job applications and teaching them how to talk to doctors, teachers or police.

Because students come from many places with no common language, the approach is immersion. Only English is allowed in classes.

Nelson may spend 20 minutes trying to explain a seemingly simple word like "flexible" to the intermediate class, struggling to convey how it refers not only to a physical characteristic but also to personality. "It took a while, but they'll never forget that word," she said. "For 20 minutes, they were totally immersed in English."

But, her students are pressed for time. Some can attend just one day a week, or one hour a day, so she tries to supplement teaching time by finding tutors for some.

"That's all they can do," she said. "They have to go to work in restaurants."

Nelson encourages her students to meet Americans.

"I tell them, You're not going to learn the language two hours a day, four days a week,'" she said. "I encourage them to make an American friend or two, to hang out and get more exposure to the language. A lot of these people don't have exposure to English in any other place. They work in a Chinese restaurant, work with Chinese and live with Chinese. That's their world."

Nelson also spends time reaching out to immigrant communities.

"If someone is not part of the Moldovan or Russian communities or not part of a Chinese restaurant crew, we don't get them," she said. "There's a Korean population here we're not touching and there are a lot of Mexicans in Turners Falls who are not coming here. We want to get other communities aware of us and get ourselves known so they trust us."

In many cases, people are given help connecting with jobs or housing. "It's overwhelming coming to this country. Their plates are full. They're trying to survive," Nelson said.

The cultural lessons newcomers must learn can also be staggering.

"Every country has extreme differences," said Nelson, who's had to explain to women students that they need to avoid physical contact with the Buddhist monks. And whatever they do, she stresses, don't bribe a policeman as they might be accustomed to back home.

"It's anything and everything, from little cultural things in classroom -- Do you question your teacher, do you correct your teacher?"

Nelson sees her role as a sort of cultural bridge. "I have to be aware of almost every little thing I do, like humor. I need to be careful not to offend."

In just a matter of weeks, she delights in watching beginners become more comfortable as their understanding builds.

"They can actually understand what's coming out of my mouth, my gestures, my movements, my cues," she said. "There's this light, this glow and happiness that comes through -- because they can express themselves."

Tackling pronouns

"Let's play some bingo!" the teacher says and hands out papers with 25 squares. A little bewildered, two Cambodians, a Romanian, a Puerto Rican, a Moldovan and a Russian who have been in English class just three weeks are asked to number each box, but not, as she puts it, "1-2-3-4-5-6 "

Eath falls into the consecutive pattern anyway. But Olimpiu -- who tells the class, "in Romania, we play bingo," -- catches on, marking his grid "13-3-1." Beside him, a cautious Aliona -- her pregnancy is beginning to show -- gets a slow start, then nervously steals a look at his paper before beginning.

"I say a number, you put an X," Nelson says, speaking slowly and clearly. "When you get five, you put x-x-x-x-x, and you say Bingo! This way, that way, this way."

A "cheat sheet" lists numbers with their written-out names. Nelson calls out a number and each student begins searching in his or her unique configuration.

"Number 10! 10!' she calls out. "Seven!" "Seven!" "23!"

Cambodian monk Pheap earned a reputation as a champion bingo player last term and the class laughs when he's the first to call out, "bingo!"

* * *

Bingo is fun. Other lessons lead to what's almost a gnashing of teeth, like this give-and-take around the classroom:

Aliona: My name is Aliona. I am from Moldova.

What is your name?

Eath: My name Cambodia.

Nelson: No, listen: My name is Ariel. What is your name?

Eath: My name Ariel.

Nelson: No, MY name is Ariel. YOUR name is Eath Thorng. What is your name?

Eath: My name is Eath Thorng

* * *

Later, the class tackles pronouns:

Nelson: They (pointing to Aliona and Olimpiu) speak Romanian. They. Understand?

Pheap (blankly): They.

Nelson: They. Two people. Two people THEY speak Romanian. Where are you from?

Pheap: I from Cambodia.

Nelson: Where am I from?

Pheap: I from --

Nelson: "No. You're talking to me, right? I say to you, You are from Cambodia. You are a Buddhist monk. You are Pheap Phorn.'

Pheap: You

Nelson: Me and you. Where am I from? Listen to me. Question: This is me speaking. Ariel speaking. Where am I from? Then you speak. Then you answer me. Where am I from? Where is your teacher from? Cambodia?

Pheap: Cambodia

Nelson: Me? Ariel? Your teacher? Where I am from?

Nelson (to Aliona): You and me. WE are women. WE are talking, you and me. WE are mothers, we -- you and me. THEY, those two, are monks. Buddhist monks. THEY are from Cambodia. But you and me, we are. I am. You are. You.

Aliona: You

Nelson: You, one person. But also I can say You are,' two people. Understand? Same word.

Olimpiu: One people?

* * *

Next comes alphabet practice, which Preston, the volunteer, calls "The great vowel distress."

As each speaker reverts to his or her own alphabet of origin, A becomes "ah" or "ahy," H is "yach" or "ahsh," I is "ee," J is "gee," Y is "yi" or "oo."

* * *

When a new student from China named Joe shows up, students get a new twist on introductions:

"My name is Galina. I from Moldova."

"Moldova?" he repeats. "Nice to meet you."

Nelson uses that as an opportunity to teach a useful phrase:

"Nice to meet you," the teacher says. "What is that? Nice. It's my pleasure. When you introduce yourself to someone new."

She asks Pheap to introduce himself, then tells him "I am Ariel. It's nice to meet you."

He looks at her blankly.

"Do you understand? No. It's saying, I'm happy to meet you, to know you, to meet you."

To blank stares, she tries once more: "Two people. They don't know each other. Joe in his life, Galina over here. Yes? No? You introduce, you say I'm happy you introduced yourself to me. Thank you for introducing yourself.' Understand happy?' Introduce?' OK, we'll work on it more later."

Total immersion

The range of students the nonprofit Center for New Americans sees at its Greenfield, Amherst and Northampton sites is great, says Executive Director Jim Ayers: from 18- to 88-year-olds, from five continents. Yet, the new arrivals share common challenges and resilience as they try to adjust to their new home.

"The people we work with include folks who have a lot of formal schooling and were professionals in their home country as well as those who only had elementary education," he says. "For a lot of people, it's difficult to come from a place where they were recognized members of their community, to a place where they don't have that."

Most, Ayers says, can't find work equal to what they were doing in their home country. The short-term goal is to help them find work so they can meet their immediate needs and maybe build skills and opportunities.

Beyond learning English, and computer skills in a separate class, these newcomers balance trying to keep their families intact, working to overcome isolation and attempting to pay bills.

"The people we work with participate in the workplace at higher rates than Americans as a whole," Ayers says. "We see people working 10 to 12 hours a day, six days week and are trying to support their families and learn a language at the same time. It's not uncommon for us to have someone work a swing shift in a factory then come to us to learn English before they go home and go to bed. It's powerful to see the sacrifices they make, and powerful to see that it's important enough for them to do that."

Franklin County's recent immigrants include a now well-established Moldovan community that Ayers guesses has about 300 members. There are also Russians, Ukrainians and Uzbeks, he said, numbering maybe as many as 80 in all, along with Koreans, Tibetans and a few Vietnamese and Cambodians, plus a larger, fluctuating number of Chinese. There's also what Ayers calls a "quickly growing" wave of Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Dominican newcomers who tend to look south to Hampden County for orientation.

The center offers 11 English classes at its three sites, two of them in Greenfield. It enrolls about a 100 students in each of three terms a year, says Ayers. Typically, five to 20 prospective students are on the waiting list for class in Greenfield.

Students often return for counseling in getting a better job, becoming a U.S. citizen or buying insurance or even a home. The nonprofit agency, which provides its services for free, gets 75 to 80 percent of its budget, about $350,000, from federal and state education funding.

The organization also tries to help isolated-feeling newcomers make connections and feel more relaxed as a part of the community, so they can be themselves, Ayers says.

"We try give the students an opportunity to ask questions about the American culture, norms and customs, so they get better understanding of how to fit in," he says. Much of that understanding comes from working with some of the 25 to 40 volunteers from around the Franklin--Hampshire area.

"We leave to individuals how much they want to embrace the new, home culture," Ayers says. "For every one, that's a balancing act how they handle that."

This is a critical point the center faces each day as it tries to open doors for the students in their new country.

"We want them to learn English," Ayers says. "But it's also very important for them to hold onto a piece of their home language as well, because it's also a part of their home culture."

‘I like Greenfield'

On Oct. 30, five students are in class, going over a handout that has illustrations of people playing sports. The Red Sox have just won the World Series the night before, but this is not a baseball crowd.

"Baze-ball. Gulf. Runnnn-nnninnng," says George, a Moldovan with wavy graying hair who has recently joined the group.

Preston, trying to explain the game, is pantomiming "around" with his right hand, as in "run around." Then, he uses his ruler as a bat to swing and hit a rolled-up wad of paper.

"Foot ball," says George, beginning to spell the word "Fi, o" before being corrected by Preston that the first letter is called "eF."

Preston asks George if he likes to play a sport, and George says, "football."

"Football or soccer?" asks Preston.

"Soccer!" he says.

Meanwhile, Pheap is pointing to the sheet as he tells Galina, "No see. I live in temple. Small. My birthday."

Nelson, listening to their conversation, tries to make sense of it. "You had a little television in the temple, so you can't watch sports? Oh, you mean when you were growing up? You mean little Pheap?"

"No sports; I cannot see," he says, smiling.


Nancy Song arrived in February from China, where her husband remains while she chaperones their son at school in New Hampshire. On her list of new words is an assortment of terms she makes use of at the Chinese restaurant where she works: shrimp, melon, fried rice, spare ribs. Beside each is a star designating need practice, a check for "good job," or an "N" designating a new word.

* * *

The students are looking at a page in their loose-leaf binders that Nelson has handed out. It depicts nearly a dozen kitchen appliances. She names each slowly, with students repeating it: "Freezer." "Coffeemaker," "Microwave." "Stove."

"Pheap Phorn, do you have a big kitchen or a small kitchen," the teacher asks one of the two orange-robed monks in the class. They are seated across from one another looking over their notes. She repeats the question patiently.

"Have small chi-ken," he says. Then, he laughs.

"KIT-chen," Nelson corrects him, smiling. "KIT-chen.

Preston explains chicken and adds a "buk-buk-buk" imitation that gets everyone laughing around the room, including Pheap.

"Chicken, k-k-k-kitchen," Nelson summarizes for the entire class to repeat. "It's a very common mistake."

Olimpiu repeats the words to himself, alternating playfully as he does: "Chicken. Kitchen. Chicken. Kitchen."

Meanwhile, Pheap mulls "refrigerator" and finally slips out a pocket-sized electronic translator from his bag, typing in each letter until the tiny screen reveals the word in Khmer. He presses a button and a female, robot-sounding voice says, "refrigerator." He smiles and puts away the device, which students are supposed to avoid using.

Around the room, in a host of foreign accents, pairs of students query one another using questions from index cards Nelson has handed out. It's a tapestry of voices, each in a different foreign accent:

Galina: "Do you have a trash can in your kitchen?"

Magalyn: "How many cabinets do you have in your kitchen."

Olimpiu: "How many burners do you have on your stove?"

Preston explains to Galina, "This machine washes dishes. Dishes: cup, plate, glass, bowl. Do you have a dishwasher?"

"I do not have dishwasher," she says. "I have daughter."

"Oh," adds Nelson, "Your daughter helps you wash dishes."

* * *

Aliona, who speaks slowly but carefully, trying to use full sentences, has been learning quickly, like her husband in the intermediate-level class.

"I want to with family," Aliona. Five of her nine sisters and two of three brothers live in Greenfield. She likes life here, she tells a visitor to class.

"I like people. How are you?' Small houses. Stop & Shop. Foster's. Magazines," she says, using the Moldovan term for stores. "I like Green-field. No big."

A melting pot

Snow is falling heavily on the last day of class, attended by just four students.

In addition to Pheap and Eath, the two Cambodian monks, wearing orange sweat shirts beneath orange robes, there is a middle-aged Moldovan couple that began coming in the last month: George and Lidia Seremet. They look out the large windows as Nelson and Preston discuss the weather and whether to end class early.

The other students are absent, mostly with health problems and weather-related issues. Aliona is expecting her baby any day. Olimpiu has returned to Romania, where his wife has been waiting.

"Isn't it pretty?" Nelson asks Pheap, who shakes his head "no."

"Pheap Phorn! You love the snow," she prods him with a laugh.

"Big snow," says the monk. "Many, many snow Massachusetts. States -- Flori-da, Texa -- no snow."

She goes to the map for a quick refresher lesson and Pheap describes slowly but as fully as he can his upcoming trip back to Cambodia for a month with other monks and nuns.

Lidia, meanwhile, uses complete sentences as she introduces herself: "I am Lidia. I am from Moldova. I live in United Statehs -- States -- nine months. In Sacramento, I live for half, Greenfield for half. I have a big family: six children, two sons and four daughters "

Improvising with a small group and an abbreviated class, Nelson writes out four questions on blue slips of paper for a final round of paired conversations: "Tell me about your house," "Tell me about Christmas," "Tell me about nature in your country," "Tell me about your family."

Once again, the room is a melting pot of four quiet conversations, in different accents at different paces and different levels of proficiency. Lidia describes her home to Nelson, George describes Christmas to Preston, Pheap describes Cambodia to Lidia and Eath tells Preston about his family.

"Mountains in Cambodia high, long " "Put up Christmas tree with lights, presents under tree" "How many bedrooms? Bed? Bed-rooms?" "One son in Leverett, two sons in Cambodia" "Christmas dec-or-a-tions" "Mango tree" "Long mountains, high near sky "

Patiently, carefully, the teacher helps her students move forward. Outside the window, the snow -- flake by flake – falls.



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