Classes break language barriers at St. Edward

Dominga Bila, a member of St. Edward Church, listens as tutor Beth Collier goes over phrases about illnesses in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. About 20 certified tutors rotate teaching the classes.
Dominga Bila, a member of St. Edward Church, listens as tutor Beth Collier goes over phrases about illnesses in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. About 20 certified tutors rotate teaching the classes.

For Mexico native 33-year-old Mauricio Robles, learning English isn’t just a fun new hobby. It is changing his life.

“I work with white people, so I need to learn English,” said Robles, who works in construction. “And not only for that, but I live here so I need to speak English.”

It’s all thanks to the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program, hosted by St. Edward Church in Little Rock and sponsored by Literacy Action of Central Arkansas.

“It’s helping to break down barriers of language and culture, getting to know parishioners,” said Al Schneider, who coordinates the program. “The foundation of all of this is learning English; the rest is the icing on the cake.”

Roble, who has lived in the United States for about 12 years, said he knew little English before taking the course. 

“I understand 50 or 70 percent, but my problem is when I put the words together to make a full sentence,” Robles said.

It has helped him not only in his work, but to be more social when attending church with English-speaking members. “I need to learn English for when I go to the hospital and when somebody calls me in English.”

The idea for the free ESL program for the parish — which has 70 percent Spanish-speaking members — started in its Social Concerns Committee, which Schneider leads.

Started in April 2014, the program has certified 20 tutors who rotate teaching. It has had about 25 students receive a certificate of completion, with about 50 participants signing up for the most recent 10-week course.

“To this day all of our tutors are parishioners except one, who is a brother of one of the tutors,” Schneider said.

Parishioner Consuelo Rivera, 53, originally from Mexico, knew little English before taking the course.

“I love my Church, I love the class,” Rivera said. “I have a need for English … for communication with my little grandson, everything for the hospital, for work.” 

But thanks to Beth Collier, who teaches one group while her husband Mason teaches another, Rivera is expanding her vocabulary.

“If there was a way to give them (Hispanic parishioners) a voice to become more independent, to help them in their everyday life, that’s what I wanted to do,” Beth Collier said. “The Lord was speaking to me to do this.”

Though Collier taught courses at the University of Phoenix, teaching a new language is a whole different ball game.

“English is a very hard language to learn. I tell my students, ‘I feel for you; I give you the biggest A for effort,” Collier said, explaining how much harder it is for adults to learn as opposed to children.

Based off of St. Theresa Church in Little Rock’s ESL program, St. Edward uses the one-on-one or small group approach, rather than one tutor for a full class. Though the course averages about 10 weeks, students can continue beyond the basic course, taking levels 1 through 5 and there is some overlap, Schneider explained.

“We have both models working now and working well,” Schneider said, adding that the classes meet on Mondays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. “We do ask for commitments … Sometimes a few students drop out, but retention has been pretty good.”

The course is designed to help students with English needed for everyday living.

“It teaches just basic things like personal information, things to fill out on applications, it goes through health, it takes them through directional information, maps,” Collier said, adding that many students stay to continue beyond just the basic course. “I asked some of the students that have been in my class for the past 30 weeks, ‘Is there anything you can do now, that you could not do 30 weeks ago?’ They say, yes I can help my children with homework and now at the doctor’s office,” identifying problems like toothaches or headaches is easy.

“It’s words they did not know in English and that to me has made it all worthwhile, that I was able to help,” she said.

All the tutor training, teacher’s manuals, student workbooks and testing are provided by Literacy Action of Central Arkansas. There’s no cost to students or the parish. The parish also provides free childcare for those taking the course.

Collier said her students have eagerly taught her Spanish words and phrases. 

“It bridges the two together where a bridge wasn’t before,” Collier said. “You get to understand each other’s way of living and culture.” 

While St. Edward is keeping this program strictly within the parish, Schneider said he hopes other churches follow their lead.

“The hope is that what we do would become a model for other congregations in the area,” he said.

Aprille Hanson Spivey

Aprille Hanson Spivey has contributed to Arkansas Catholic as a freelancer and associate editor since 2010. She leads the Beacon of Hope grief ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

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