Church's English-languages classes attracting many
A little English can go a long way.When leaders of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the North Hills considered holding English-language classes for foreign-born local residents, they had no idea what the response might be.”We were scared about what we were getting into,” said John Russell, the director of the program for the church in Ross Township.Yet church members wanted to help immigrants who might be feeling lost with just limited command of English.Fifty students attended the first class in September, and the planning committee was “overwhelmed,” said Russell, of Ross. When 60 came the next week, members were ecstatic. All told, 85 students registered.During the last class of the season in May, organizers were certain their idea had been a good one, as the large meeting room filled with the aromas of an international food court. Study was over, and it was time for celebration with students contributing home-country favorites to the ethnic dinner.The room buzzed with sounds of growing friendships; the English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, classes had become more than lessons for future conversations.”We’re very thankful, and we’re amazed,” said the Rev. Harry Metzger of McCandless, pastor of the church.”It’s been such a delight. The students are so friendly, kind, appreciative. Some don’t want to break for summer.”The plan to create “a family atmosphere and a place to love these people,” in Metzger’s words, had been a success.Ean Ky, 37, of West View, has seen changes in his wife, Lymey, 26, who arrived here from Cambodia in October.”She’s done remarkable,” he said.At home, the couple speaks Khmer, a language Ky has retained since his arrival in the North Hills in 1982. A graduate of North Hills Senior High School, he works as a nurse in a nursing home.Chinese women in the class reached out to his wife, he said, and offered explanations to her in Mandarin. His wife has become good friends with a Japanese woman of the same age. Outside of class, the women share thoughts on Facebook. “With talking, she knows she is not battling depression, homesickness, on her own.”Ultimately, Ky said, he hopes her English is equal to the task of getting a driver’s permit without a translator. Then, with additional ESL classes, possibly at the Community College of Allegheny County, his goal for his wife is a high-school-equivalency certificate.Viera Kolenicova, 18, came to Hampton Township as an exchange student from Slovakia in August.”When I am asked if I know English, I say, ‘Not, it could be better,'” she said, “but I can tell what I want and what I need.”For her, the classes have been fun, “not like hard study, but comfortable.”She is pleased to be making “all A’s, even in English” in her high school classes, a fact she has shared with her family, with whom she communicates on Facebook for about 10 minutes each day and Skype on weekends.The Wilson family of Allison Park welcomed her into their home and has treated her to trips to Washington, D.C.; Niagara Falls; North Carolina for the Thanksgiving holiday; and Ohio for rowing competitions in which her house-sister, Emily, participates.Kolenicova will add her improved English to the Slovak and Czech she already speaks, the Polish she understands and the three years of French she has studied.Nidhi and Arun Rawat, a Ross Township couple, are taking the class together.From India, they have made their home in the United States for the last five years, first in Boston and now in the Pittsburgh area. “I loved it,” said Nidhi Rawat, 30, said about the class. “I am more confident and improving on knowing more about the American culture and its festivals.”At 35, her husband, who is a software engineer, has honed his English skills in the business community.But these classes are a good way “to mix with Americans,” she said, and for speakers, such as her husband, to lose his Indian accent — something that hasn’t happened yet. With a little less accent, people will be able to understand him better, she said.”English is not difficult. The accent is difficult for us.”Mashael Al Hrabi, 25, is a Saudi Arabian student enrolled at La Roche College in McCandless with her older brother and sister. All three attended the weekly ESL classes.Al Hrabi, a business major, lives in Ross Township.”I miss home a lot,” she said, “but the classes are not uncomfortable and the students friendly.”She and her siblings had known a little about the United States from their father and uncle who had traveled here years ago. At a distance today, Facebook, Skype and Viber keep the extended family together.Al Hrabi plans to continue with the English classes next fall.”If people talk faster, I can’t understand anything.”After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degree, she plans to return home.Deborah Loffredi, a member of the church from McCandless and a Point Park University theater graduate trained in dialects, has worked with the students to perfect their skills.”(Some) speak English fine, but they want to fit in better,” she said.Because they want to sound like Americans, she uses methods she teaches at her acting studio. A phonetic alphabet helps students speak a variety of dialects for different roles.”Asians have trouble with the ‘R,’ ‘L,’ ‘V’ and ‘B,'” she said.”Indian placement in the mouth is different (to pronounce certain letters). Everybody has different issues.”Loffredi’s instruction also includes practicing “the musicality of American.” The group also has studied local sayings, homonyms and homophones.”It’s fascinating to see it from the other side,” she said.Next year, she might suggest the use of tape recorders to help students practice between class dates.Many of the first-year attendees seem happy enough with their progress to consider more weeknights in the classroom. But from now until then at the church, Russell said, “Wednesday evenings will be very lonely.”
Check out future classes English-language classes for nonnative speakers at the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the North Hills in Ross Township are scheduled to start again in September. For more information, go to www.rpcnh.net/ ministries/esl. To register, call 412-407-4648, or email [email protected]leanne.com.