For Viviana Simon, helping out as a Spanish interpreter at a county women’s clinic has served as a poignant reminder of the isolation that comes when words fail.
The patients she helps, members of Howard County’s growing Hispanic population, are often pregnant and worried about pains they cannot describe in English.
“There is no way to describe the symptoms,” Simon said. “Without an interpreter, you’d be lost.” She knows she can’t always be there, in the clinic or out in the world, to help them find the right words.
But as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Howard Community College, she is trying to help local immigrants learn to speak for themselves.
The latest addition to the college’s ESL curriculum is an experimental class that starts this month and is designed to help Spanish-speaking students struggling with the most basic Spanish literacy skills.
“There’s a need,” said college ESL program coordinator Rebecca Price.
According to the latest census figures for Howard, the Asian and Hispanic populations more than doubled since 1990. Thanks to a state grant, the college already offers a battery of non-credit, beginning English classes, free, to U.S. citizens, permanent residents and workers with valid permits. Simon and the other teachers help adult students from all over the world master listening and speaking skills as well as reading and writing in English.
But through their teachings, and in response to local Hispanic leaders, they saw the need to go back to square one with some students, who, because of crises or economic problems in their native countries, never even had a chance to become literate in Spanish.
“There is a pocket of people who had interrupted educations,” Price said.
The new basic literacy course for Spanish speakers will be offered from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday afternoons at the same time as the college’s beginning listening and speaking English class.
That class, which started in the fall, has attracted about two dozen students with a wide range of abilities, Price said.
Some will be moving to higher levels of English, while others will revisit Spanish. Price acknowledges that a class that attempts to teach the basics in a native tongue might seem unusual, with public policy moving away from bilingual education and toward English only. But she believes it is worth a try.
“I have not been a real strong bilingual proponent, but it makes sense to read a language that is your own, to do phonics with words you recognize,” she said. “We are going back to Spanish albeit briefly. We are going back to phonics so the concept of reading is clear.”
Still, she knows she’s facing significant barriers in even reaching students who need the program most.
“It’s very difficult to get literacy students in the door,” she said. “They can’t read the information. And they are working very hard too.”
For more information about the program, call 410-772-4088.