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Adult Immigrants Pursue Integration Through Language In Manatee County

Aug 19, 2019

Public schools are known for helping children who don’t speak English as a native language. But there isn't as much focus on "English Language Learner" education for adults with a similar language barrier.

Everyday situations like filling out a job application, reading street signs or going to the doctor can be daunting for someone born in a non-English speaking country.

In Bradenton, 140 immigrant adults from 39 countries are learning to read, write, and speak English with tutoring from the nonprofit Manatee Literacy Council.

According to recent data, 83.52% of Manatee County residents speak only English, while 16.5% speak other languages. The non-English language spoken by the largest group is Spanish, which is spoken by 11.57% of the population.

Cecilia Cortez is among the residents of Manatee County whose native language is one other than English.  The Colombian-born English language student receives one-on-one tutoring once a week and attends a weekly English conversation class where students from countries like Haiti, Cambodia and Venezuela can practice using English in everyday conversations. Cortez discovered the classes after her employer suggested she pursue English language instruction. She says these classes offer her a chance to learn the language without feeling judged when she makes a mistake.

“It’s the only place that I can express myself without fear,” she said of speaking English out loud.

Volunteer tutor, Chris Kotchi, passes out "conversation starters," slips of paper with questions designed to get students talking and to help them practice their English skills.
Credit Cathy Carter

The Manatee Literacy Council was formed in 1982 as a grassroots organization. The nonprofit does not receive any state or federal money and with the exception of one employee, is run by a cadre of volunteers.

Retired journalist, Chris Kotchi, leads one of the organization's weekly conversation classes. She says she finds it helpful to come up with inventive ways to get the students talking and uses handouts, games and props to do just that. At a recent class, her students practiced their English adjectives by describing their ideal vacation spots.

Kotchi also volunteers with one-on-one tutoring and says her experience has taught her that learning English is hard.

“You’re getting words in from every different language,” she said. “It’s not like Spanish where there are rules you can follow. So I appreciate so much that these learners have the confidence and the bravery to speak it out loud in our conversation classes."

In terms of specifics, English is an amalgamation of other languages including Germanic, Ancient Greek and Latin, which is also common for languages spoken in Europe. But in Florida, 75% of immigrants come from Latin America.

John McWorter, an academic and linguist who teaches at Columbia University has written on the complexities of the English language.

“The multiple influxes of foreign vocabulary partly explain the striking fact that English words can trace to so many different sources, often several within the same sentence.”

Alfredo Zayas recently moved to the United States to be closer to his family, including his granddaughter Emma.

For students like Alfredo Zayas, conventions of the English language can be confusing.

"For example, in Spanish you have five vowels and only one sound but in English you have five vowels but many, many sounds,” he said.

Zayas was born in Cuba and defected to Mexico as a young man. He retired to Manatee County to live near his adult children--but like many older immigrants, he had to rely on family members to translate. But Zayas wanted to read, write and speak English on his own.

"I know that my English will never be perfect because it is not my native language and I am an older man,” he said. “But I will never give up because I live here now and if I live in an English-speaking country, I have to learn how to express myself and interact with other people in the country."

Lillian Santiago Bauza, the Executive Director of the Manatee Literacy Council, is very aware that in this current political climate, some of these students may be criticized for speaking their native languages. But in this program, they don't worry about a person's immigration status, the focus is on learning. 

"It's unfortunate that people are targeting people, saying they don't want to learn English," she said. "Everybody wants to learn another language and to me, it’s an asset."

Bauza says that literacy affects every aspect of a person's life from financial stability, to health care  and education. If a parent can't read, odds are their kids will struggle in school. For most children, language skill development begins at home. Young children from families which are new to the United States often do not speak English at home, making it harder for them to learn.

I have tried in every conversation I have for people to understand that you're not only teaching English, you're giving people life.

And of adults with the lowest literacy levels, nearly half live in poverty.  

According to the Literacy Council, adult illiteracy carries an estimated price tag of $225 billion annually as a result of incarceration, loss of income and tax revenue, unemployment or underemployment.

"We're talking about people that depend on learning English to get a good job,” said Bauza. “If we want a community that is fruitful, that has financial stability, we need to help everybody in this community."

At the Manatee Literacy Council, each learner has to be matched with a volunteer, so Bauza is passionate about recruiting more tutors. The organization currently has more than 50 potential students on a waiting list.

"I have tried in every conversation I have for people to understand that you’re not only teaching English," said Bauza. "You’re giving people life.”   

And she added, it’s giving people a way to contribute to the economic and social life of their adopted country.