While we debate the issue of an official language, new immigrants line up to learn English in Minnesota


There’s been a lot of political discussion of late about the English language – whether it should be our government’s official mode of communication. 

Tim Pawlenty, our maybe-presidential-candidate, is agreeable to that.

The Lino Lakes City Council has decreed it.

Some politicians even suggest immigrants and refugees shouldn’t be allowed past Lady Liberty unless they speak English.

Given all that, you might think people not born here don’t want to learn English. The numbers and the people tell you otherwise.

More than 32,000 adults around the state took English as Second Language classes in 2008-2009, according to the state Department of Education, from licensed teachers or thousands of trained volunteers, through school district adult-education programs or community organizations.

Just consider that last year, at the St. Paul Schools’ Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning, about 600 adults came to classes daily to learn English. In the Maplewood area over the past five years, demand for English classes has more than doubled. The Minnesota Literacy Council trains about 1,800 volunteers a year to work with adults, most of them to teach English.

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A visit to the Harmony Learning Center, an old school building of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district, puts faces on those numbers.

‘English is important’
Kayoua Faust from Laos and Arirat Toft from Thailand spend 10-hour days four days a week in pursuit of English language mastery, the key to their futures in this country, they say. 

“To live in this country, English is important,” explained Faust, 35, who met her husband while he was serving in the U.S. military. “If you don’t know English, it is hard to find a job.”

You might think most immigrants and refugees coming to these shores have little education. Some adults are illiterate. Others, however, have earned advance degrees in their homelands.

“In my own county, I can read and write and understand,” said Toft, 28, who came here with her American husband. The two-year college degree she earned in her native Thailand didn’t transfer here, so she’s determined to master English and seek more education. “I want to be able to take care of myself,” Toft said.

In Laos, Hue Yang, 33, earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, but the degree is not recognized in the United States. Living in North St. Paul, the Hmong man comes to Harmony to better his English, what he calls the “international language,” on his journey toward college.

“It is my goal,” he said, his face tight with concentration as he pronounces each English work distinctly.

For many, English is a launching pad to a better life.

Comfort Wilson, a 30-year-old Liberian refugee living in Maplewood, speaks English quite beautifully, though tinged with her native tongue. Wilson worked as a nursing assistant until she became ill. Now she’s mending and learning.

“I want to improve my English skills … improve pronunciation, know when to use past and present tense,” Wilson explained, intent on earning a GED and becoming an RN or nurse practitioner. 

Learning life skills
For Safiya Andawus, 43, who left Nigeria only nine months ago, a life selling goods in the town marketplace will become a distant memory if she can improve her English and find a job here. 

English students learn not only the language but also life skills, American culture and what it means to be an American citizen. They earn GED equivalencies, prepare for work or college.

At English classes at Rondo Community Outreach Library in the Summit-University area of St. Paul, the enthusiasm to learn shows. Some arrive 30 minutes early for evening classes, passing by a St. Paul Police officer guarding the entrance to classroom space donated by The St. Paul Public Library.

Students sandwich classes in before, after or between jobs and busy family lives, their teachers say.

Their teachers, Peter Espenson, a senior at Hamline University, Molly Goodier, an engineer, and Linda McBrayer, a trainer with the state justice system, are volunteers, trained for the Minnesota Literacy Council program.

In her beginning English class, Goodier uses a menu to teach the vocabulary of food to her nine students. She holds up a menu, saying: “What is a menu?”

“Eggs,” says a male student, grasping the concept.

“In a game,” says a female, to laughter with recognition that computers and electronic games also feature menus.

“Noodles, chicken, soda,” says another student.

Goodier nods assent, adding, “A menu is something found at a restaurant. Do you understand?” She looks around the room for nods of recognition, ready to provide more information to any who don’t understand.

Interestingly, English is taught just this way, as in the public schools, without translators.

The political issues
Jennifer Weaverling, assistant supervisor at the Hubbs Center, says she hasn’t heard her students talk about the English-as-the-official- language issue. “[That’s] a very recent conversation” that hasn’t reached them, she said.

“I can 100 percent tell you it’s not their motivation for coming to school. They have very immediate, real-life needs, things like employment, earning a living, being able to navigate things in the community, talking with schools for their children, shopping, banking.” Weaverling said. State records show the need to learn English is great as 37 percent of St. Paul public school’s students have limited English proficiency.   

So, why is there this obsession with an official language for this nation?

“If the intent is to make sure that everybody speaks English and is literate, that’s great,” said Eric Nesheim, executive director of the Minnesota Literacy Council. To be a functioning member of society, people need to know how to read and write, Nesheim said.

Some suggest that English-only talk has a darker side, as spelled out in The Free Press of Mankato, when an editorial writer asked:

“If you pass it, they won’t come. Could that have been the intent of Lino Lakes passing an ordinance that makes English the only language to be used in city materials?”

Others want to downsize government, including decreasing dollars going to teach English.

State Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, isn’t shy about confirming an email he sent to supporters in late 2008 calling for “the elimination or drastic reduction” of state funding for a long list of programs including teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees.

Buesgens – against what he calls “big government” – declined this week to comment further on the language matter because of his position as campaign chairman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. “What I’ve done in the past I stand by, what I did as a legislator … but it has no reflection on what Tom’s position may or may not be,” on spending money to teach English, Buesgens said.

As for those long hours in the classroom, student Faust shrugs them off. “You have to push yourself. If you don’t push yourself you’re not going to learn anything. I’m happy to be here.”

This article is made possible in part by the Don W. Taylor Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation.