WASHINGTON – They may work two jobs or 12-hour shifts or take care of large families, but many adult immigrants arriving in the South want to learn English.
They gather for English as a Second Language classes at community colleges, in churches, high schools, libraries and civic associations.
Irving Avila arrived four years ago from Mexico. He works all day installing insulation, sometimes getting up at 4 a.m. But he still finds time to take English classes at Mitchell Community College in Statesville, N.C.
“My family is my life,” Avila, 30, who supports his parents and sister in Mexico, struggled to say in English. “I need English to talk to my boss. I need my job to make money. I need money to save my family.”
The Pew Hispanic Center reported that 57 percent of foreign-born Hispanics believe that speaking English is necessary to be part of American society. Virtually all – 96 percent – of those surveyed said it was very important that their children be taught English.
Proficiency in English is worth at least 15 percent a year in a paycheck, said Barry Chiswick, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“They can work in a Spanish enclave and consume in Spanish-speaking stores, read Spanish-language newspapers and watch Spanish-language television,” he said. “But this will limit their earnings.”
With the latest studies showing adult literacy in the United States dropping, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says teaching immigrants English becomes more critical.
“The demand in the immigrant population is across the spectrum,” she said last week, “from basic literacy all the way to advanced higher education.”
In North Carolina’s Piedmont region, Northern Virginia, parts of South Carolina and northern Georgia, immigrants are establishing new communities where they must communicate with native English speakers to advance in jobs, help their children in school, and interact in everyday life.
“For the past two years, the demand for English classes has grown dramatically nationwide,” said Lynn Reed of ProLiteracy America, a nonprofit that runs English classes. “It is hitting everywhere, in places where you don’t suspect there would be immigrants.”
As Spanish-speaking immigrants become part of the South, they are beginning to speak a new dialect that combines Spanish with a Southern drawl, said Walt Wolfram, a North Carolina State University linguist.
Driving in Siler City, N.C., Wolfram said he stopped for a truck that was blocking his way. The driver rolled down the window and said in Spanish-accented English, “I’m fixin’ to move in a minute.”
“That was a thoroughly Southern ‘fixin’ to’ with an overlay of Spanish pronunciation,” he said.
At Statesville’s Mitchell Community College, immigrants can take morning and evening English classes free. The program is paid for with state and federal money.
Nearly 800 adults are enrolled and flags of 32 nations hang from the ceilings representing the student’s home countries. Fifteen instructors work with adult immigrants, up from two a decade ago.
“If they would give me this building, I would fill it,” said Leslie Foster-Davidson, who directs the adult English as a Second Language program. “We have seen a huge increase in the number of students who want classes in citizenship.”
More than 35,000 adults were enrolled in ESL classes in North Carolina last year.
Foster-Davidson said helping immigrants to overcome weariness after working eight, 10 and even 12-hour shifts so they can study for two and a half hours each night takes energy and creativity.
For one class, she had a recording of the Beatles singing “Hello Goodbye,” a song that is filled with contradictory words. She gave the students, who ranged in age from their 20s to 60s, cards with words from the song.
When the Beatles sang, “Hello,” those with a card with “Hello” written on it raised the card. At “Goodbye,” those holding that card raised it.
“You say, yes, I say, no. You say, stop, and I say go, go, go,” the Beatles sang and the cards flew as many of the students started rocking to the music.
The type of students taking English classes has changed as immigrants arriving in the area have changed, said Candy Putnam, director of Mitchell’s basic skills program.
About 15 years ago, when she was the only teacher, she would help migrant Mexican farm workers who were illiterate in Spanish learn a few phrases. Later, plant managers asked her to teach immigrant workers to read warning signs. Wives of executives at nearby Japanese-run plants showed up for classes in conversational English.
Now, Putnam said, more professionals want classes, and students come from a wider range of countries – mostly Latin American, but also East Asian, Russia and the former Soviet republics. Many are fleeing political unrest.
In an advanced English class, were three Colombians – a businessman, a lawyer and a journalist. All said the turmoil from narco-terrorism convinced them to leave.
“My life was threatened,” said Georgina Mendoza, who had been a government prosecutor in Colombia before arriving in Statesville in January. She started English classes immediately and attends both morning and evening classes. “I want to be able to study law in America.”
Churches are also teaching English and can provide things a college can’t – transportation, child care and food.
About 20 miles north of Statesville in rural Iredell County, Union Grove Methodist Church got a grant from a foundation to build a language lab with 10 computers. The church arranged with Mitchell for instructors for about 30 students three nights a week.
As the church’s bells chimed “In the Garden,” immigrants and parishioners gathered for a monthly family night supper. Most of the immigrants are Mexicans and El Salvadorans who work in nearby factories and food processing plants. More than a fifth of the kindergartners in the local elementary school now are children of immigrants.
Stephanie Miller, who works for a clothing company, said there is some resentment among her fellow workers about the influx of immigrants.
“You hear, ‘They need to go back where they came from,’ ” she said. “Some people fear they are taking their jobs.”
Miller never expected to use her high school Spanish, but now she drives immigrants to the church for classes.
“On family night we invite the children, too, so we all know who these people are if we see them in the grocery story,” said Jana Vyhlidal, one of the teachers. “It tears down that ‘Who are these strange people?’ attitude.”
Gil Klein can be reached at [email protected] .