Learning the language: English class 2010.03.24

Written by David Green.


“How may I help you?” asks Morenci Elementary School teacher Melissa Elliott.esl.elliott.jpg

“I would like to cash my check,” answers Gaudencio Cortes. His statement doesn’t come out smoothly, but it’s easy to understand his request.

Melissa doesn’t let him off that easily.

“Could I see some ID?”

Gaudencio pretends to take a card from his wallet.

“Do you have an account with us?” Melissa asks.

“Yes,” Gaudencio answers.

“Oh, I need you to sign the check,” Melissa tells him and hands the paper back.

“Could I borrow a pen?” Gaudencio asks, with a little help.

“Do you want small bills or large bills?” she asks.

That pretty much covers everything that might be experienced when Gaudencio goes to the bank with his paycheck from the Bruinsma Dairy northeast of Morenci.

Next it’s Pilar Cuayahuitl’s turn to go through the routine.

Pilar is the reason that Melissa is leading this informal class in English as a second language.

Pilar has lived in the United States for 10 years, but she still speaks her native Spanish. She once started to take an English language course in Adrian, but soon dropped it. It was difficult to arrange travel to the class and it wasn’t quite what she was after.

She started to spend time in Mrs. Elliott’s class last year when her daughter, Mariel, was in first grade. She thought it would be a good way to learn more of the language. That led to the start of the class, not only for Pilar but for the parents of other students, as well.

Pilar invited some of her relatives to attend and five sessions were scheduled last fall. A few other family members of local dairy workers have shown up to attend the additional 10 classes that were set up for the winter. Today marks the final session.

Some weeks only a couple students attend. Other weeks as many as a dozen appear in Melissa’s classroom. Work schedules often make attendance difficult.

Although Melissa has a good command of Spanish, she learned a more formal approach in a classroom and doesn’t consider herself an expert by any means.

That’s where Dora Cortes comes into play. Dora, a sister-in-law of Gaudencio, lives in Wauseon and met Melissa at a family function. She agreed to serve as an assistant, and she hasn’t missed a session since.

In addition to banking, class sessions have covered using the telephone to call 911; visiting the doctor; learning address and phone number; learning terms that might be encountered on the job; and learning phrases that could be useful when calling the school.

“We decide at the end of each class what will be discussed next,” Melissa said.

There’s always plenty of repetition with each topic.

“Most of them understand a lot of English, but they haven’t taken the time to learn to speak it,” Melissa said.

In many cases, a person’s husband or wife can communicate well and one speaks for the other when necessary. The children are all bilingual and they often handle the translating.

“It really takes a lot of practice,” Dora said.

That’s a hindrance to Pilar because her husband, Armando, doesn’t have the patience to teach her.

“The most difficult thing about living here is not knowing the language,” Pilar said. “And the winter,” she added.

The inability to communicate brings  restrictions to life in the U.S. and if she doesn’t learn to communicate in English, she’d rather return to Mexico.

Leticia Acosta agrees. It’s terrible not to understand, she says, and she wants to learn the language both for herself and to create a better life for her child, who is scheduled to be born in June.

Melissa understands the frustration. Her father was in the U.S. Air Force and she remembers spending a year in Korea, unfamiliar with both the language and the culture.

Mastering the local tongue goes beyond a simple matter of communication.

“It feels good for them to learn,” Dora said.

Melissa plans to resume classes in the fall, maybe in a more formal setting.

• Twelve members of area Mexican families have signed up for a CPR/first aid course. Melissa is working with Morenci police chief Larry Weeks to organize the two four-hour sessions that will feature instruction and videos in Spanish.

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