Tuesday, 11 October 2016 15:17

Fostering Bilingualism: How community members strengthen language-learning in Johnson City Featured

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Callie Longo leads a Spanish conversation group at the Johnson City Public Library every Tuesday afternoon. Callie Longo leads a Spanish conversation group at the Johnson City Public Library every Tuesday afternoon. Max Schmidt

It is a Tuesday at the Johnson City Public Library around 5:45 p.m. Callie Longo, 24, is preparing for members to show up for a discussion group that she leads every week.

The conversation group usually spends half of the two-hour period speaking in English and the other in Spanish. Longo began the group as an alternative for people who wish to continue learning and speaking Spanish but do not have the time, or the money, to enroll in courses.

“I noticed when you’re in school, it is really easy to keep up the language skills,” said Longo. “But once you get into the adult world, there is not really anything available unless you’re consistently engaged in conversation.”

Longo searched the Tri-Cities for a place where Spanish learners meet, even asking ETSU’s Spanish program if there were any kind non-student program available. This would lead her to host the group of learners.

“I figured the library was a good place to start,” said Longo. “I just asked and sometimes you ask and you get what you receive and/or deserve.”

In the beginning weeks only a few people attended, but as time went on, Longo felt almost overwhelmed leading a conversation with 15 people. She wishes more fluent Spanish speakers would attend so it would lighten the load of having to keep the advanced speakers on pace with the intermediate.

“Usually there is an average around five to eight people who show up,” Longo said in mid-September. “Last week I had 15 people. It was a little bit much honestly. It would be really awesome if we had some native Spanish speakers attend. I can speak Spanish, but the advanced people don’t want to sit and listen to me repeat how to say ‘the dog is red.’”

Longo graduated from North Carolina State University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and Spanish. She completed her Spanish degree after spending a year studying in Spain. Since Longo is not a teacher of Spanish, only a volunteer, she doesn’t treat the group as a class with multiple goals to be completed in tight time frame. However, that’s the case for Science Hill High School teacher Joe Hoffman.

Hoffman, 44, has been teaching English as a Second Language at Science Hill for 13 years. Not only does he help students better their English skills, he uses English to prepare them for possible learning struggles – like in mathematics and economics – that they may face once they leave the classroom.

“One of the biggest challenges I face is helping these students with their other courses,” said Hoffman.

“Sometimes I get students who do not have a strong academic background. They’ll struggle all across the board, especially in math. The counselors and I coordinate to help make sure [students] get all their credits to graduate, while incorporating their interest.” Much like Longo’s group, Hoffman’s benefits from having smaller classes.

 "It’s pretty common as a student gains proficiency in English, their parents don’t always gain the same proficiency. It almost creates strains that can lead to social and economic problems on the family."

                                  – Joe Hoffman

Hoffman averages around seven students per class. While this may seem low compared to other courses, Hoffman thinks it’s the best size for goals he has for his students. These smaller classes also allow him to create better one-on-one relationships with the parents and guardians of his students.

“I wish I could meet with more parents,” said Hoffman. “But in the end, being able to meet with some parents, whether it is by phone call, email or face-to-face, it does make a difference on the student.”

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. who speak proficient English at home has seen a 9 percent jump over the last decade.

In 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, 59 percent of the 35.3 million Hispanics in America spoke English “very well.” In 2013, 68 percent of Hispanics in America said they spoke proficient English at home.

These numbers suggest that at as years go on, English is becoming the much more prominent language in Hispanic culture of America as a whole.

The same analysis from Pew states 3.2 million Hispanics said they do not speak English at all, while 12.5 million would say they speak English “less than very well.” These figures combined equal 32 percent of the estimated Hispanic population in 2013.

When Longo heard these statistics, she was shocked.

“That is way too many people not able to have a basic conversation,” said Longo.

Because of Hoffman’s experience with Hispanic families, he is not surprised.

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“I can believe [those statistics],” Hoffman said. “These numbers sound high, but it’s pretty common as a student gains proficiency in English, their parents don’t always gain the same proficiency. It almost creates strains that can lead to social and economic problems on the family.”

Hoffman’s statement may correspond with a nationwide trend. The Pew report stated that as even though the number of English-speaking Latinos seems to be increasing, the number of Latinos who speak Spanish at home is declining: 78 percent of Latinos spoke Spanish at home in 2000, compared to 73 percent in 2013.

How do these estimates apply to members of the Tennessee Hispanic community?

Lisette Laura and Kimberly Grez are two young women who were willing to talk about their families and their Spanish language.

“When my parents and I talk to each other its only in Spanish,” Laura said. “Not only is it our native language, but my parents just don’t really feel the need to ever speak English because they don’t truly get their message across.”

Laura’s parents can speak English very well, but always feel the message of their words gets lost in translation. Laura and her family are owners of La Perla, a chain of Mexican restaurants combined with a grocery store located in cities across East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

This is similar to Grez’s home life.

“We only speak Spanish when talking to each other,” said Grez. “In Nashville, there is a very large community of Hispanics. This allows me and my family to speak Spanish casually and English when we need to.”

While this large community in Grez’s hometown has allowed her to use both languages, the same cannot be said about her parents.

“My dad can speak English very well; my mother, however, has no real English skills,” said Grez. “Growing up, I was always her translator. But now that I am in college, nearly four hours away, I have gotten her into a few English courses to improve her skills.” The class Grez enrolled her mother in is similar to Longo’s, but has some of Hoffman’s teaching style.

Hoffman, the high school language teacher, said he sees this happen among his English-learning students. Sometimes students will help lead their parents to become better English-speakers through the language skills they bring home from his class.

“Even though I don’t think everyone in our community should be forced to learn other languages,” Hoffman said, “I do think people should fully understand the importance of fostering bilingualism.”

Above Right: Joe Hoffman uses his planning period to prepare his classroom with newly purchased equipment for his students.

Above center: Kimberly Grez is a part of ETSU's Language and Culture Resource Center, a place where staff and studetns of different ethnicities meet and work towards ways to better the multi-cultural community and university.

En español: Fomentar el bilingüismo: Miembros de la comunidad fortalecen el aprendizaje de inglés en Johnson City

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