Learning the Lingo
Mastering ESL in Fairfield
Alla Schlate, Sacred Heart’s director of the English Language Institute, runs a tight ship.
Photo by Stan Godlewski
When Jiyi “Jenny” Choi was just 14, she boarded a plane from Korea bound for the United States. She’d always wanted to study in America, and so she and her parents decided attending Notre Dame High School was the best way to make that happen. “When I first came to Fairfield, I didn’t speak much English at all. I had been learning it in school, but it was classroom English. The most difficult thing to learn was slang because they don’t really teach that,” says Choi, now a sophomore.
Choi is one of many students in Fairfield learning English as a second language, or ESL. While numbers aren’t available on how many people enroll in ESL, several places in the area offer courses, including Sacred Heart University, Notre Dame High School, and Norwalk Community College.
While Choi wants to learn English for academic purposes, some people hope improved English will help them career-wise, some want the chance to speak with their grandchildren, and others need it for day-to-day living. In short, the reasons people enroll in ESL are as varied as the languages spoken in their respective homes. Nevertheless, the students share one goal: mastery of the English language.
“All of them are united by one purpose and we offer them every opportunity to help them succeed,” says Alla Schlate, director of the English Language Institute, Sacred Heart University, where between 60 and 80 students from more than 24 countries, including Saudi Arabia, India, China, and Japan attend classes.
It’s a rigorous course dotted with social events such as a wintertime happy hour featuring hot chocolate and croissants, as well as excursions to places such as the USS Intrepid, Sea, Air, and Space Museum, or the Statute of Liberty.
Over at Notre Dame High School, students from Italy, Germany, Korea, China, and Guatemala attend the high school’s extended study-abroad program. The students live with a host family, some for a year, some for all four years of high school.
“Students are thrown into an environment, it’s fascinating to see. The English they have learned thus far is classroom English. It’s fun through the year to see them pick up slang. It means they’re really getting the nuances of the language,” says Joanna Cipriano, the high school’s international student coordinator.
Indeed English ranks as one of the most difficult world languages to learn. From spellings and pronunciations to grammar and verb tenses, English is replete with oddities. For example, the k in know or knight is silent. Then there are the heteronyms: words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and different meanings. For example: “A bandage is wound around a wound.”
“There is so much to take in, it has so many quirks. There is a lot of memorization in English that native speakers don’t think about. So it can be very difficult to sound polite and professional in English for the non-native speaker,” says Madeleine Golda, who runs Golda Consulting, which offers several services including ESL professional development.
Additionally, English has more words than most comparable world languages because though originally a Germanic language, after the Norman Conquest of 1066, Norman French influenced development. So it’s essential for people to be exposed to the language outside the classroom. However, that’s not always easy, particularly in this corner of Connecticut, Golda says.
“It’s not a listening culture here in Fairfield County. People trying to speak will hear ‘You need to go fix your English.’ So it can be really difficult for non-native speakers,” Golda says.
Aside from navigating the seemingly endless parade of linguistic obstacles, there are cultural challenges in ESL classrooms.
“I’ve had students from Saudi Arabia say they will not sit next to a girl. I’ll say ‘Does she bite? There’s no biting that I can see. You will sit next to her,’” Sacred Heart’s Schlate says. “I tell them our expectation is you do as we do. Just as we do as you do when we visit your country. I’m Russian, I don’t mince words.”
For the international students at Notre Dame, the first months are often challenging—whether it’s interacting with the community at large or sitting in a classroom where the teaching style is so very different from the students’ home country. Unlike classrooms in Russia or China, for example, American teachers tend to move around the classroom more and ask students for their individual opinions on subjects.
It’s been nearly two years since Choi arrived in Fairfield and although she’s now considering attending an American university, she says she still finds it difficult to overcome one particular aspect: “I was home last summer, and I really miss the food. My mother sends me care packages.”
Bilingual education in the U.S. dates as far back as the first North American settlements in 1664. In addition to many Native American languages, at least 18 languages were spoken in the U.S. in the 1600s. In 1839 some states began to adopt bilingual education laws that authorized instruction in languages other than English.