Students learn English for their families, their jobs, their community

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, May 20, 2013

— "Poco a poco," Raymond Paez tells his students.

The phrase means "little by little," or "bit by bit," and it's a good motto for the 20 or so students who attend Paez's English language classes at Turtle Creek Elementary School in Delavan.

Paez' students aren't children. His students are adults with families and jobs in factories, restaurants and other industries with many hours and entry-level wages.

Some students can't read or write in their native language. At most, they have high school educations.

Whatever their challenges, "poco a poco," his students are learning.

Edith Martinez, Delavan, wants to be able to communicate with her children's teachers.

"I want to better help them with homework," she said.

Her children are 6 and 8 years old, and education is important to her.

Nidia Robles, Delavan, is learning so she, too, can talk with her son's teachers. He will be in kindergarten next year.

"Every night, I read him a book (in English)," said Robles.

Does he ever correct her pronunciation?

"Yes," she said, pronouncing the word perfectly.

Connecting with families

The class, which is free, is part of the Delavan-Darien School District's efforts to engage the district's Spanish-speaking population. About 25 percent of its students speak English as a second language.

District officials believe—and academic research shows—that children do better when their families take an active part in their education.

The English class helps with all of those goals, said Delavan Darien School Superintendent Dr. Robert Crist.

Parental communication with teachers and schools can help with attendance, conduct and academic achievement, Crist said.

Along with the English class, the district has also hired two part-time Latino liaisons, Crist said.

Translators are available at school board meetings and other important functions such as parent-teacher conferences. The district has also redoubled its efforts to make sure all communications are sent home in both Spanish and English, he said.


At a recent Tuesday night class, Paez and his students reviewed vocabulary words from a previous session including the tongue-tying "refrigerator."

During the day, Paez works as a bilingual classroom and office aide for the district, so he knows what kind of stress parents face when they can't communicate.

As students worked through the "listen and repeat sessions," Paez reminded them of common pronunciation pitfalls such as "jess" instead of "yes"; distinguishing soft "b" and "v" sounds" and the hard consonants at the end of such words as "sink" and "heat."

As he teaches, the challenges of learning English become evident. In Spanish, all vowels are pronounced one way. In English, vowels can be long or short. The "a" in "cat" is short. The "a" in "Kate" is long.

In Spanish, the number of irregular verbs is limited. In English, irregular verb forms are more the rule than the exception. For example, the standard or "regular" way to make an English verb past tense is to add "ed.": biked, climbed, jumped.

Now think of all the exceptions: rode, swam, read, saw, heard, taught, drove, wrote, ate.

Then add the words that look different but sound alike: "They're," "their" and "there."

"Even English speakers get that wrong," Paez said.

Successful learner

Edna Feldman-Schultz is a native of Argentina and teaches Spanish at Parker High School in Janesville.

She also speaks and writes in Hebrew and English, and can get by in several other romance languages.

Of those, English was the most difficult to learn, she said.

"Hebrew has a different alphabet, but the pronunciation is very phonetic," Feldman-Shultz said.

It's the inconsistency in pronunciation that makes English-language learners crazy.

For example, sometimes "oo" is pronounced like a "u," such as in "door." Other times, "oo" is pronounced as "ooo" as in "good." "E" is sometimes pronounced more like "a," as in "Edna."

When she first came to the United States with her husband, Gazette reporter Frank Schultz, she said she spent a lot of time watching "Electric Company" and "Sesame Street."

She later taught Hebrew at Beloit College, and eventually went on to get a master's degree in education.

Despite all her education and experience, there are still moments when English pronunciation—or some tricky point of grammar—eludes her.

Making progress

Paez's students agreed that pronunciation was the most difficult part of learning the language—without seeming to realize how much progress they had made.

Santiago Sierra said he wanted to learn English for "his work, for talking with the supervisor."

The multi-syllabic "supervisor" comes out perfectly, even with the tricky "v" sound in the middle.

Next to him, Evelia Aranda nodded and added, "We need to speak with teachers," with the "d" and "k" in "need" and "speak" well articulated.

Paez said that whatever their challenges, this group of learners was motivated to learn—for their families, their community and themselves.

From old county to new country

"Why don't they learn English?"

That question has been thrown at immigrants since the country's origins, said David McKay, senior history lecturer at UW-Rock County.

"The answer to that question is that they do—they always have," McKay said.

Benjamin Franklin once expressed concerns that the new German arrivals were "the most stupid of their nation."

He declared, "Unless the stream of their importation could be turned," English-speakers would be so outnumbered they would not be able to "preserve our language and even our government will become precarious."

After the founders, the first wave of immigrants came in the early 19th century, McKay said.

They were largely from Northern Europe, often came with their families, were slightly more affluent and usually had more education. They moved into the interior of the country, settling in their own communities.

In 1848, Wisconsin ratified its state constitution.

Although it was written in English, it was also published in Norwegian and German, to "meet the needs of Wisconsin's immigrant population," according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

In the late 1800s, a second wave of immigrants arrived on the east coast, McKay said. They were mostly from eastern and southern Europe—Italy, Greece, Russian, Poland.

"They were darker-skinned people, came from rural areas, and it tended to take them more time to learn the language," McKay said.

Many were farmers, without much education.

"They tried to find neighborhoods with people they could relate to, where people would hire them," McKay said.

But even in the Midwest, it took time for immigrant groups to assimilate into the population. In 1920, Chicago supported more than a dozen foreign-language dailies, and ethnic populations often kept to their own neighborhoods and churches.

In 1910, one in four Americans spoke German every day at home, McKay said.

"What happened to German was World War I," McKay said. "Sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage."

Benjamin Franklin would have been proud.


Last updated: 10:34 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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