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A Latino Family Shares Their Struggles With Learning English

Naomi Prioleau/WUSF
The Ruiz family, Andres Ruiz, Ligia Zarate and Carolina Ruiz, of Tampa, share their experiences in learning English.

In a ranch-style house in Town 'n Country, the Ruiz family converses over arroz con pollo in Spanish about the struggles of learning English.

The Venezuelan-Colombian family is a blend of native English speakers and Spanish speakers trying to learn or perfect the English language.

Family matriarch, LigiaZarate, is 71 and has a great fear of learning the language, even though she has a desire to learn it.

Credit Naomi Prioleau/WUSF
Ligia Zarate, 71, moved to Tampa three years ago from Colombia to be closer to her daughter and grandson. She only speaks Spanish because she's too afraid to learn English.

“I’m afraid that I don’t learn anything,” her daughter Carolina translates for her. “That I can’t learn.”

She moved to Tampa three years ago from Colombia to be closer to Carolina and her grandson, Johan.

She's not alone in her fear of learning to speak English though. According a study by the Pew Research Center, 21 percent of Hispanics 65 years or older don’t speak English at all in the U.S.

When she has to run an errand, Zarate depends on Johan to be her translator.

“When we're going to the supermarket, I help her,” he said. “I’ll tell her like, ‘Oh, do you want to buy this?’ and she's like, ‘Yes,’ so then I tell them what she wants to buy in English because she only speaks Spanish.”

If she’s out somewhere alone, Zarate will use another form of communication.

“If I’m in a place where nobody speaks Spanish or I don’t speak English, so I try to make people understand me, by movements or signals,” she said through her translator.

Carolina, 37, empathizes with her mother. She was fearful of speaking when she moved to the States from Colombia in 1995.

So she didn’t.

Credit Naomi Prioleau/WUSF
Carolina Ruiz, 37, came to the U.S. from Colombia in 1995. She recently graduate from Hillsborough Community College after completing their English for Academic Purposes program.

  “I was very afraid to speak,” she said. “I knew how to write, I understood reading, but speaking is very hard for me because of my pronunciation and everything.”

When she moved to Tampa, Carolina essentially became the family translator.

It wasn’t until she was passed over for a job that she realized she needed to master the language.

“I wanted to work in a place, you know, they need people who speaks fluent English,” she said. “Sometimes when you don’t sound as good, they think that you don’t know or that you don’t understand.”

So she enrolled in the English for Academic Purposes program at Hillsborough Community College. Now when she’s home, she'll practice English with her son, and her nephew.

Andres Ruiz, 17, has studied English his entire life in Venezuela. Nothing prepared him for conversational English when he arrived to Tampa 10 months ago.

“The first time, someone said, ‘Hey, what’s up,’ I was like, ‘What? I didn’t learn that. I didn’t learn that at my 

Credit Naomi Prioleau/WUSF
Andres Ruiz, 17, has been in Tampa for 10 months trying to perfect his writing in English. This is his first time being away from his parents who still live in Venezuela.

  school,’” he said. “What is that? ‘What is up?’ I don’t know. The sky?”

He also empathizes with Zarate’s fear to learn English, especially with the difference in age.

“Maybe it's hard to try and change your way of talking after so many years,” he said.

John Ruiz, 50, is married to Carolina and is Andres’ uncle. He moved to Tampa in 1997 but originally came to the U.S. in 1988 from Venezuela.

He said the reason the majority of Hispanics don’t want to speak English is because of the fear of being mocked or laughed at.

“The scary part of getting to this country is when people laugh when you are saying something,” he said. “I can say 90 percent of the Spanish speaking would be scared of speaking because of that thing.”

Zarate doesn't want to give up trying to learn English though. She plans to become a U.S. citizen in the next two years and it is one of the requirements for the test.

Maritza Chinea-Thornberry, 60, teaches Spanish at the University of South Florida. She’s a native Spanish speaker, from Puerto Rico, and said she completely understands why older adults are resistant to learning English.

Credit Naomi Prioleau/WUSF
Maritza Chinea-Thornberry, 60, is a Spanish instructor at the University of South Florida from Puerto Rico. She said if she could, she'd only speak Spanish.

  “If I could speak Spanish my whole life in here, I would speak Spanish,” she said. “It's the easiest language that comes to you, it's what you grew up with and English it's not that easy, pronunciation wise it's not.”

So what words of wisdom does Ruiz have for her mother and others learning a new language? Practice, practice, practice.

“Now I understand that if you want to learn any language you need to practice it,” she said. “If you don’t practice it, you will never learn it or master it."

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