WATERLOO — The classroom was abuzz with conversation at YWCA of Black Hawk County.
It should be. It’s a language class.
But the language is one the students aren’t used to — English.
Natives of Mexico, Congo, Angola, Burma and others gather at the Y — all in the same room — to learn English. A group of University of Northern Iowa students are there to learn to teach it.
And seeds of the universal language of education and understanding are being sown among those gathered.
The class is informal, but structured and focused. Learners, interpreters and coaches are broken into small groups, each focused on language tasks at hand.
Presiding over it all is YWCA staffer Umaru Balde, a multilingual native of Portuguese West Africa who floats between the groups with a helpful phrase, encouraging word and a smile. And he makes sure they keep talking.
UNI language professor Elise DuBord said the class didn’t turn out exactly as planned for her students — and that’s a happy circumstance.
“I’m teaching a Spanish class at UNI,” she said. The students are primarily Spanish majors and minors, some who plan to teach English as a second language.
“I wanted to do something with my class that would be a community-based learning project,” she said. It didn’t turn out as planned because many of the people they’re working with don’t even speak Spanish, let alone English.
“We have a wide range of languages,” she said. “But part of the idea is for my students to learn about what the immigrant experience is like — what it’s like to learn a new language for the first time in this kind of setting. I think it’s really good experience. Just the teaching experience. Originally when we set up this project we thought it was going to be all Spanish speakers. But the population changed. That’s okay. We’re rolling with the punches and figuring out how we can work together with the community. You kind of have an empathy for anyone who’s learning a language, regardless of what their base language is.”
Several English learners in the class had to speak to a reporter through interpreters, because their conversational skills have not yet advanced. But they indicated they’re benefiting from the training.
Socorro Marquez, a 73-year-old former resident of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, said through an interpreter she likes to learn and “it’s important to learn English in this environment.”
Mansunga Theresa Arlette, an Angolan who also lived in the Congo and whose native tongue is Portuguese, said she’s liking the class and developing her communication skills very much. “I don’t speak a lot, but I understand very well,” she said. She’s living in Waterloo and came here from Maine because she has family here.
Sae Reh, a native of Burma, said “When we came here we didn’t know anything they said. It’s very important. I want to be a good English speaker. I have improved a lot. Now I can speak a little bit. When I go to appointments, I can understand it a little bit now. I’m very happy to attend. I’ve never seen some people (of certain nationalities) before, so we can be friends.”
A year ago, the English language program at the Black County YWCA had dwindled to a point where officials were thinking of discontinuing the program.
That was then.
Now, enrollment in the program has more than doubled due to an influx of Burmese and Congolese residents.
It’s to the point where the agency is contemplating capping individual class size. Transportation has been a challenge and the Y needs more vehicles to transport students and their families, for whom day care is provided while they are in class.
“Our English class has increased dramatically. In fact, last year we were a little worried we wouldn’t be able to keep it going,” YWCA director Cindy Mohr said. “It got down to 39 people, and they weren’t all coming at the same time.”
Then multilingual YWCA staffer Balde, who teaches the English classes, was in touch with the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center, or EMBARC. “That kind of opened up a door. They asked us to do a summer program. Then they wanted to continue long term. We picked up a lot of Burmese and Congolese.
“We started working with one of the University of Northern Iowa volunteer groups, UNI RISE,” or Refugee Immigrant Support and Empowerment, “they help tutor the Congolese and other refugees and immigrants here,” Balde said. “We started working with them, and turned out we’re doing case management for the clients” on their various other needs. “More and more people started coming to the community from the Illinois area, with green cards and some refugees or under the federal diversity visa program, available to countries with low rates if immigration to the U.S.
“I got in touch with them,” Balde said of the Congolese residents. “Since they spoke French, we became friends.” Now they’re learning English from him. A minimum of a high school diploma is one of the standards required for a diversity visa.
“That makes the big difference between the Congolese in our class and the Asians, the Burmese,” Balde said. While the Burmese are refugees, “all the Congolese have degrees from back in their country. It’s just the speaking and reading English they have problems with.”
There’s about 70 students in the English classes Balde teaches. In addition to the Burmese and Congolese, there are a number of native Spanish speakers as well and a few Arabic.
Asked how he teaches English to a class of individuals of various languages and cultural backgrounds, Balde responded, “That’s where the fun starts.”
And he tries to make it fun. For example, he recently rewarded a Burmese woman and her husband with a small birthday present for learning to write her own name — a packet pencils and a two notebook. It was a small but significant gift, Balde said, noting birthdays typically aren’t celebrated in that culture. “We sang Happy Birthday to her,” Balde said. “She was getting emotional.”
“I get translators and interpreters from EMBARC who speak some of their languages,” said Balde, a native of Portuguese Guinea in west Africa and a UNI graduate. He speaks several languages but not those of the Burmese. “The rest of it is just body language. And Google Images.”
“I think one of the nice thing Umaru does is from the time they get here to the time they leave, they only get to speak English,” Mohr said. “They have to pay attention and just practice that language the whole time. If you don’t practice it you don’t use it.”
A large number of UNI language students also show up to help out to serve as conversation partners. “But they are just Spanish and English speakers.” It seems to be working, even when the UNI students are paired with someone who doesn’t speak Spanish.
The program is on the rise. YWCA is trying to cap class size for the especially popular Wednesday night class. “We’re getting more people,” Balde said. Hawkeye Community College offers some pre-literate training, but the YWCA offers a setting more comfortable for many foreign-born residents. Plus the YWCA offers transportation and child care to those who otherwise would not attend.
The language training also is important for attendees to be eligible for job placement programs offered by various social service agencies.
“We may cap a specific class size, but we’re going to do our best to accommodate people,” Mohr said. “Our biggest challenge so far has been the transportation. We only have so many vehicles. Particularly when they have children and then they have car seats and all that goes with it.
Laldin Liani, a Burmese interpreter and RefugeeRISE AmericCorps worker with EMBARC , said people are gaining from the class. “They really work hard. They want to learn. They say they’ve improved a lot. When we first worked here, I needed to explain everything. But now you can see. They talk to each other.” in English.
EMBARC Waterloo program manager Alicia Soppe said her agency has helped with enrollment and transportation to the class.
“EMBARC tries to serve as a bridge between the refugee community and other existing resources in the Waterloo area,” Soppe said. “Working with the YWCA has been a really great partnership with us and they do a lot of good work.”
More information about the program and its needs, call the YWCA at 234-7589.
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