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Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Bilingual Wolf?


Feliz Cinco De Mayo! While the date and the original holiday associated with it trace their roots back to 1862, when the Mexican army defeated French forces at Puebla, Mexico, against all odds, the holiday is now observed more commonly in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride. Imagine that: a holiday with a Spanish name that is actually more popular in America than in its native land.

Regardless of which internet-linked organization you believe is the most reputable, it is becoming apparent that America is destined to become a bilingual nation. Referendums to make English an official language anywhere in the United States have proven futile. Many questions on the topic have arisen, but the most disputed one is “How long will it take?” Estimates vary from 20 to 50 years.

What does this mean to you as a resident of northern Pennsylvania, where the names of our towns still reflect the former presence of numerous tribes of Native Americans? Certainly, the area has not been and will not likely be overwhelmed by a Hispanic subculture, but the number of people who speak English as a second language (ESL) has increased significantly in the last 15 years.

According to Bradford-Wyoming County Literacy Program (BWCLP) program director Sherry Spencer, there are pockets of Hispanic residents in the Sayre/Athens area, as well as in Wyalusing, Laceyville, Meshoppen, and Tunkhannock. According to me, there’s also a great, authentic Mexican restaurant in the Towanda Motel. I’m salivating right no thinking about their black bean soup and homemade tortilla chips.

I began my Spanish language studies at Towanda High School with teacher Gloria Nilsson, who encouraged my interests in not just speaking the language but also writing stories in Spanish. I was so excited about Spanish at the time that I wanted to become a Spanish teacher. In addition to my stepfather telling me that teaching doesn’t pay enough, my plans were further thwarted when I went to Tunkhannock High School as a junior and was told that there were not enough students interested in Spanish III, so I took a year of French instead. There were finally enough students to comprise a Spanish III class in my senior year, which I enjoyed even though I had changed my career plans by then.

My command of the language was especially useful to me when I lived briefly in the Los Angeles area, not so much among my friends and neighbors, who were mostly Russian Jews, but in more public arenas such as airports. After I moved back to Pennsylvania, I ran out of people with whom I could converse in Spanish, which led to a decline in my ability to speak it.

That’s why I was excited to enroll with Rocket-Courier advertising manager Nancy Keeler in a Spanish language class for adults, which meets at Wyalusing High School on Thursday evenings. We share the belief that, as the number of born Spanish speakers increases here, there will be a greater need for born English speakers who can help to bridge the communication gap. When I expressed my pride in the endeavor to a woman whom I love like a mother, I was rebuked.

“Why should you have to do that?” she asked. “If they want to live and work here, they should speak English!” At the risk of offending her intellect, I backed off from the topic, but I was frustrated. I’ve also heard the statement “They should speak American” more times than I can count. I used to think that employing the term “American” instead of “English” demonstrated the ignorance of each of the monolingual defenders I had met, but I was wrong.

While “American” is not a language, American English is. It is also one of the five most difficult languages in the world to master by a non-American-born speaker, primarily because it has been influenced by so many languages and cultures. We have letters and combinations thereof that are pronounced in various ways. We have words that are spelled the same but carry different meanings, as well as words spelled differently that are spelled the same. Such is not the case with Spanish, which is in fact one of the easier languages in the world to learn. The nuances are often more personal and deal with the culture more so than with linguistics.

Several of the students in my class are determined to learn as much as they can in eight one-hour sessions, but they are clearly finding Spanish to be more difficult than they had hoped it would be. As they struggle to gain control of words and sounds that are foreign to them, I had to wonder what was being done on the other side of the fence. Are the born Spanish speakers who have moved into the area to work in stone quarries, at Cargill, and with gas drilling companies trying to learn English?

My investigation began with the school districts. I figured if Wyalusing was offering adult Spanish classes, surely some school district was offering or sponsoring ESL classes for adults.

“We have ESL classes for our K-12 students as required by law, but no classes for adults,” related Athens Area School District superintendent Doug Ulkins in response to my inquiry. “It sounds like an interesting venture.” Ulkins’ much-appreciated response was indicative of what I learned. No school districts offer ESL classes for adults. Finally, Northeast Bradford Jr.-Sr. High School Spanish and literature teacher Denise Cueves provided the clue for which I was looking by leading me to the Bradford County Library at Burlington.

The library is the current home to the aforementioned BWCLP, the directors of which are planning a  move within the next month to the former Valley Woodworks building on Main Street in Towanda. Among the programs offered by the agency are two once-weekly ESL programs for adults in Laceyville and Meshoppen. The agency has also worked closely with Cargill, having conducted ESL classes for employees there from 2000-10.

Longtime ESL instructor Vicki Vannan heads up the program for BWCLP and related that her adult students are primarily, but not entirely, born Spanish speakers. She currently has a Russian-born student and has previously welcomed class members whose native tongues included Syrian, Egyptian, Portuguese, Chinese, and Turkish.

“It’s not something that is easily done,” Vannan said of mastering American English. “It takes someone who wants to do it.” And her students have a strong desire to learn. They need to understand what is happening when they go to the bank, the drivers license center, to enroll their children in school, or to make a visit to a doctor’s or dentist’s office. At venues that are federally funded, such as the drivers license center, born Spanish speakers can at least find instructions printed in Spanish, even if nobody at the facility can effectively communicate with them. Otherwise, they are as lost as most of us would be at a market in the heart of Mexico.

Spencer explained that BWCLP provided language services for 130 adult and teenage students in 2010, about 50 percent of whom were born Spanish speakers. Conversely, I doubt there were as many English-speaking adults enrolled in Spanish classes, despite the benefits.

Cueves considers herself polylingual, having been raised in a home where Hungarian was often spoken. Although she grew up speaking English, she studied German in high school before learning Spanish for her husband’s sake. She mastered Spanish to obtain her teacher’s license. In addition to helping her to feel more comfortable when traveling abroad, Cueves’ command of Spanish has helped her to assist born Spanish speakers locally.

“I have had numerous opportunities within the area to use my Spanish skills,” she related in reference to being able to help born Spanish speakers in stores and restaurants where there were no other Spanish speakers. She has helped Spanish-speaking neighbors who needed information about garbage pickup days and municipal regulations concerning snow removal. Cueves believes that the influx of Spanish speakers will continue and that more language instruction in both English and Spanish should be offered.

“Many of these people will stay, and if we want them to become an active part of our communities, we should offer them a place to improve their English,” she stated.

Vannan shares Cueves’ interest in integrating born Spanish speakers into the community. She regularly invites professionals in various fields from both Meshoppen and Laceyville to attend her classes. “The people who I have brought in to work with (the ESL students) have been very receptive to the idea,” said Vannan. The students, in turn, feel more comfortable as their families spread out in the respective villages. Many of them cooked and sold Latin foods last year at Laceyville’s annual Community Day Festival. They also created a float for the parade.

Cueves’ referral to “opportunities” to speak Spanish, as well as comments from other people with whom I have spoken who find learning new languages to be “enlightening,” bring me to my point.

Neither opportunity nor enlightenment are life forces to be feared. I picked up on French rather quickly because learning Spanish had already opened that door—or rather my eyes—to foreign languages. Pigeon-holing oneself into believing that one language is all we need to deal with a global economy, let alone a multi-cultural society, is a far more frightening thought to me.

For more information about BWCLP, interested readers may contact Spencer at 570-297-3375 or literacy@bradfordco.org.

In the meantime, buenas tardes.    








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