ESL classes show community can be found in translation

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FALL CITY - The language barrier is being breached in Fall City.

Every Wednesday, the King County Library System's Fall City branch hosts an English as a Second Language (ESL) class put on by Hopelink and the Eastside Literacy program. The program works to welcome new members to the community by teaching the basic tenant of being a good neighbor: how to strike up a conversation.

"If you want to learn English, just come in," said Vanessa Allen, one of the class's teachers.

The classes are hosted by Allen and Jenny Brown, both Fall City residents who got involved after looking for a way to help out in the community. Two years ago Brown learned about the class and while she knew a little Spanish, she was far from fluent. She soon found herself, however, in charge of the class in Fall City, which attracts mostly Spanish-speaking students. Brown did not have a teaching background, but she did learn some basic exercises for basic lessons. Since anyone can show up and there is no formal course of work, the classes are simple and people can attend as many as they want. Those who do come habitually may get a little bored, though, because there is only a finite number of times someone wants to learn how to introduce themselves or list their favorite colors.

"It was kind of awful in the beginning," Brown said. "You have to deal with a lot blank stares."

That is why having a second teacher to handle more advanced lessons is valuable, Brown said, and that is where Allen comes in. She got involved in Hopelink's literacy and education programs a year ago because she, too, wanted to help out in the community and realized how hard life would be for those who couldn't read or write English.

"If they are going to live in this county, they are going to have to speak English," she said.

The classes have been attended by young children up to those in their 60s. Class sizes range from one to 10. Allen and Brown have been working to get the word out about the classes, but don't know how many residents they are reaching. One of their students, Ricardo Martinez, said many fellow Spanish-speaking Valley residents don't know about the classes and those who do are just too tired at the end of the day to go to a class and learn vocabulary.

Some come at the urging of their children, who are learning English in school. Brown and Allen said many will come after they have children and realize they want to stay in America as long as they can and get the best job they can.

Getting to class can still be hard no matter how much someone may want to show up. The jobs most of the students work have long, irregular hours that don't lend themselves to regular Wednesday evening attendance. In the summer, many migrant workers will work as long as there is daylight.

Occupations drive many of the lessons. Allen and Brown have developed lesson plans around the kind of jobs their students have, from construction to restaurant work.

"We spent three weeks on words like 'framing' and 'nail gun,'" Brown said.

There is room in the lessons for creativity, though. Last Wednesday, Martinez completed an exercise in which he was given a picture of a person and asked to write about them. He could come up with whatever he wanted regarding the picture, which was of young boy on a bicycle, but he had to be able to articulate whatever he said about him.

Allen was clearly pleased at Martinez's progress. Before, Allen said, Martinez would have good ideas, but wasn't able to write clear sentences. Regular attendance has brought him a long way, though, and now he can write clear, complete sentences. The edits in his work are few, and while his pronunciation is a little rough, Martinez easily understands words spoken to him.

"He has come a long way," Allen said.

Some of the idiosyncrasies of English are hard to teach, but it can also make the lessons fun. Students learn phrases and words from the culture in which they are surrounded and bring them in to get an explanation. Finding the translation for lyrics to pop songs and the language of love can sometimes be difficult.

"Someone asked me to explain 'you take my breath away,'" Brown said. "How do you do that?"

But there is a clear message that Allen and Brown said is not hard to get across to their students; a message that says all are welcome to stop by and chat.

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