English at Large: volunteers bridge the language gap

At first glance, those who are homeless do not seem to have much in common with immigrants, especially those adults who cannot speak or understand English. However, the two groups share the experience of being voiceless and marginalized.

Immigrants who are struggling to learn English feel alienated when they cannot share their thoughts with others, frustrated when they cannot express themselves in an emergency, and powerless to change their situation in a country like the U.S. where instruction in English as a second language (ESOL) is drastically underfunded.

Given the lack of government support, the job of instructing immigrants in the English language often falls to volunteer-based organizations. These organizations aim to do more than give lessons in grammar; they also teach the basics of U.S. citizenship and government to prepare immigrants to take their citizenship test, provide opportunities to socialize and practice the language in conversation, and generally help them to adjust to life in the United States.

One of the stalwart efforts in the field is English At Large (www.englishatlarge.org), a volunteer-based organization offering free ESOL instruction in more than twenty communities around Boston. Under the direction of just two full-time paid employees, English At Large consists of an army of 265 volunteers helping more than 350 learners (Another 220 are on the waiting list). English At Large serves the whole person – from assessing a learner’s existing English skills on the first day they walk through the door, to one-on-one tutoring in the rudiments of the language, to offering classes to prepare students for the U.S. citizenship test (Fifteen learners received their citizenship in 2010). Along the way, English At Large can also provide their learners direct referrals to relevant social services agencies.

English At Large offers immigrants two paths to learning English, neither of which takes place in a traditional classroom setting. For one-on-one tutoring, tutors and their students meet in libraries or restaurants for once- or twice-a-week lessons. For those who are just starting out on the path to learning English, such individual attention provides a valuable source of motivation. The other, equally important element to the program is conversation groups. Volunteers organize and lead these gatherings at churches and public libraries in the area. English At Large currently offers twenty three conversation groups which are attended by more than 160 learners. A volunteer may lend their own distinctive style to the groups, with the aim being to provide a comfortable space for learners to use what they’ve learned from one-on-one tutorials.

Lisa Durrell is a former elementary school teacher who for a year and a half has been leading a conversation group at the Burlington Public Library. She was also last year’s recipient of the Mildred Gilman Award, given annually to honor a volunteer tutor who “has demonstrated an unwavering commitment and flexibility in meeting English At Large’s growing needs.” Ms. Durrell works hard to keep her students engaged in the process of learning through conversation. “One of our big topics last year was small talk,” Durrell says. “That included discussing what was not appropriate to talk about in our culture – politics and religion.” She sometimes centers conversations around riddles and knock-knock jokes, knowing that many adult learners can use such material with their own school-age children.

As Ms. Durrell’s methods show, conversation groups can benefit family literacy by helping parents get more involved in their children’s education. In addition, according to evaluations conducted by program manager, Patrick Lilja, 86 percent of learners say what they like best about conversation groups is the increased confidence it gave them in using the language.

Conversation groups also provide a civic and social assist to immigrants by hooking them into their local communities. For volunteer Gene Moulton, who leads a conversation group at Reading Public Library, the act of gathering together with others at a public library is itself a powerful lesson. “Students realize that libraries are places to take courses and meet other immigrants,” Mr. Moulton wrote in an email. “There they can network with others from their own countries.” And it doesn’t hurt that libraries offer free access to the Internet. “Some immigrants don’t have computers,” Mr. Moulton added, “and so they are thrilled when they can use the library computers. Doing so really sets them free!”

The two-paths-to-learning approach appears to pay off, both for the learners themselves and the communities they live in. As a learner survey from 2008 reveals, 38 percent of English At Large learners enjoyed the immediate economic benefits of greater English fluency by either finding a job or getting a promotion in their current job. Thirty-three percent “increased civic and community involvement, including attaining citizenship and voting” while another 20 percent were able to increase the level of involvement in their children’s education. As these data indicate, an organization like English At Large creates immense public benefits in terms of economics, civic engagement, and family literacy. Learning and teaching English is not simply a personal concern.

But of course there are benefits on a personal level as well, and to ignore that aspect of the process of would be to ignore some incredible stories. Confidence is what learning English gave Amina Mohammed, who arrived in this country from Somalia in 1995. She found English At Large three years ago. Now she meets with her current tutor, Judy Riley, every Friday at a restaurant in Woburn. Before, when Ms. Mohammed was trying to learn English in a large classroom setting, she felt discouraged and alone. “I was so depressed because when I would go to classes I didn’t know as much as the others,” she said in a phone interview. But the one-on-one attention she has gotten through English At Large has made the difference. “Now I am more comfortable when I go shopping, or when I go to the hospital.” Since coming to this country, Ms. Mohammed – a single mother – raised her six daughters while working and learning English on the side. Apparently her passion for learning left a mark on her children; in recent years she has seen each of them graduate from high school and enroll in college.

Learning English has helped Lexington resident Dongwook Seo realize his dream of owning a business. When Mr. Seo arrived in the U.S. from South Korea three years ago, he had already studied some English. He found, however, that speaking conversationally was a greater challenge. “For me, the most difficult thing about learning English was speaking,” he said. “I could always understand more than I could speak.” He now meets once a week for lessons with his tutor, David Jay. The regular instruction has improved Mr. Seo’s quality of life immensely. “I’ve made American friends through English At Large. My teacher, David, has told me a lot of things about the country. I learned many things through him.” This fall, buoyed by his new-found confidence with English, Mr. Seo opened a restaurant in the North End, Bonne Chance café.

The Executive Director of English At Large, Macy DeLong, knows something about the sense of alienation experienced by immigrants and the homeless; she has had personal experience in both realms. “As a young woman I moved to Germany and was plunked into a German school. At that time my whole family experienced what it was like to be immigrants,” DeLong said. “So, I know from the perspective of a teenager, what it’s like to struggle to communicate in a foreign language.”

Ms. DeLong later returned to live in the U.S. with her family. And at Harvard in the late 1980s, she studied developmental biology with some of the leading minds in the field. But her promising path was cut short when – after suicide attempt – she was, as she puts it, “misdiagnosed, and then mis-prescribed” by doctors who failed to see the signs of bipolar disorder. Paranoid, and convinced that she wasn’t safe at home, she took to the streets where eventually she learned how to exploit the Boston subway system and seek a winter’s refuge under the city. When that option proved to be less safe than she had anticipated, she migrated back to Cambridge, sleeping first on heating grates before moving on to a graveyard in Harvard Square, and finally into the back-seat of her Honda civic. While she was living in her car, she teamed up with other homeless people to launch the nonprofit Solutions at Work. As that organization grew in stature, she assumed the mantle of Executive Director. Twenty years later, in 2009, Ms. DeLong got the call to take over as Executive Director at English At Large.

These days Ms. DeLong is busy raising money to make up for an annual budget shortfall hovering around $80,000. “Given the funding capability on the part of foundations and the mood on the part of corporations, we’re really dependent on individual donors for the majority of our funding,” she says. “I’m working hard on getting faith communities and corporations to fund us but in this funding climate that’s very difficult to do.” Not one to take all the credit for her organization’s success, Ms. DeLong is quick to praise program manager Patrick Lilja. “We’re very lucky to have him,” she says. “Patrick is a really skilled teacher and has a tremendous vision for the program as a whole. It’s really grown under his leadership.”

If Ms. DeLong comes off as overly modest, Lisa Durrell, the award-winning conversation group leader, wants to correct the imbalance. Ms. Durrell was a volunteer before Patrick and Macy came on board and so has been able to see the difference both made to the organization. According to her, their leadership style has always been to listen to the advice of veteran volunteers. “They deserve a lot of credit,” she says. “They have done an incredible job getting this organization spiffed up.”

(Amina Mohammed and previous tutor Selma Adler. Photo courtesy of English At Large)