Summary: A Lake Oswego volunteer helps to bring the language of their new homeland to recent immigrants

Nancy Kazmierowski leaves her Lake Oswego home earlier than usual one recent day — there’s something special she wants to pick up at the store before class.

A beloved English as a Second Language teacher to adults in the Tigard area, Kazmierowski hides her treat in her bookbag as she bustles into the Tigard Senior Center.

Her students’ chatter dies down as she pulls her purchase out to show them.

“I do not know what this is,” says Maria Esquivez, carefully holding the small, leafy branch in her hand. “But you say it is for Christmas?”

Kazmierowski chuckles, explaining, “If you are standing under mistletoe on Christmas, a man must kiss you.”

Esquivez gasps and covers her mouth with a hand. She’s trying to hide her smile.

“You stand under and kiss?” she asks Kazmierowski, looking at the mistletoe again. “Oh, my. Oh, my.”

Her reaction is a good thing, according to her teacher. Kazmierowski’s class is all about questioning — it’s a sign that they’re thinking about their studies. She wants them to question as much as they laugh, which is a lot. And oh, yeah — she also wants them to learn English.

According to the Population Research Center at Portland State University, about 5,000 to 6,000 new legal residents have arrived in Oregon each year for the past decade. Add to that the approximately 1,000 undocumented immigrants who the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates arrive each year.

Considering that between 40 percent and 50 percent of these new arrivals speak little or no English, the importance of Kazmierowski’s work takes on new significance.

“You have to make it fun for them, just because learning should be fun,” she said. “But they come even if it’s tough. They’re incredibly motivated.”

The numbers would indicate that. The Tigard program, which is free to anyone from the Sherwood and Tualatin areas as well, began six years ago with three one-on-one tutors and their three students. Today, there are close to 100 volunteer teachers like Kazmierowski and more than 500 students.

“We know that their lives are hard and their schedules are tight,” said Derene Meurisse, who oversees the program. “When they get here, it’s a comfort for most of them. They do really enjoy it, and they certainly know how important it is.”

The state system reported 41,335 ESL/bilingual students in 116 of the state’s 198 districts in 1998-99, the most recent numbers available.

“There hasn’t been a count of the number of adults in need of English tutoring, but you’ve got to assume that those kids who don’t speak English have parents at home who don’t speak English,” said Jonathan Codd, a Wilsonville-based media consultant who tracks immigrant markets in the Northwest.

Take Steve Satoshi. When he arrived in the United States from his native Japan three years ago, bringing with him a wife, son and daughter, Satoshi had not considered how limited his English was, he said. Not only that, neither his wife nor his children spoke a word.

“It was very important for me to learn English very fast,” said Satoshi, who works in a grocery store in Sherwood. “I need talk to my children’s teacher at school, to drive a car, to have an apartment.”

He got a library card and began checking out books and audio tapes in an attempt to drill the language into his head. But it was slow going.

He wanted a class with a teacher, he said recently, seated in the Lake Oswego Public Library with ESL tutor Sandra Warren and three other students. “I need to practice. I need teachers to tell me when I am not right.”

Warren, who has been working with limited-English speakers for a decade on a volunteer basis, says she never could have predicted the tremendous swell in immigrant population in the Portland area. Warren, who has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Washington, retired as a respected authority on immigration standards and status in the Northwest for the Population Research Center at PSU.

She said she’s thrilled about the Lake Oswego library’s recent purchase of a $2,300 ESL video collection, made possible by a grant from the Friends of the Library.

Joel Guldner, the reference librarian who wrote the grant, said there’s been increasing demand for ESL tools and library-sponsored tutoring sessions.

“I’ve had a lot of people who want to take their citizenship test, and especially for something like that, the videos can be more useful than the books or audio tapes,” said Guldner.

According to the National Association for Bilingual Education, the number of requests for ESL classes has doubled since 1990. The number of complaints about limited resources tripled.

Back at the Tigard Senior Center, Meurisse said, “It wasn’t that long ago you wouldn’t find someone who spoke Spanish living in Tigard.” She looked around the room at the students, hailing from Mexico, Japan, Brazil and Korea. The program also serves students from Afghanistan, China, Ecuador, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Romania, Russia, Spain, Taiwan, Ukraine, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Kazmierowski said that oftentimes, students’ goal is to learn not conversational English but rather “survival English.”

“They need to know what to do in a job or in the grocery store,” she said. “They need to have English put into context for what their lives are all about.”

Knowing what mistletoe is might not be considered by most a survival tool. Still, said Kazmierowski, it’s a piece of a complicated puzzle that has to come together one way or another.

“If all it does is pique their interest to continue learning the language as a way of making their lives easier to lead,” she said, “we all will have succeeded.”

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