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For Many Struggling To Succeed AroundThe World, English Is The Key



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For Many Struggling To Succeed Around

The World, English Is The Key

By Barbara Sibley

Like any motivated business executive, Bartosz Romanow aspires to lead key projects and impress his supervisors. Unlike his counterparts in the United States, however, Bartosz needs more than ambition and experience to get ahead. “Last year, my boss made it clear,” says Bartosz, a director with Shell Polska in Wroclaw, Poland. “For me to succeed, I must learn English.”

Across the Atlantic, Betania DaSilva describes a similar need to learn English. She and her husband William, both Newtown residents and natives of Brazil, have two children attending Newtown schools. “We need English so that we can communicate with our daughters’ teachers and be part of the community,” Betania says.

I’m fortunate to have met Bartosz, Betania, and others like them through my recent adventures teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). My journey began last September, when I joined the Danbury chapter of the Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) as a volunteer ESL tutor.

I enjoyed the experience so much that I moved to Poland in March of this year to pursue an ESL teaching career full time. Today, I instruct ESL to about 60 Polish students while earning my master’s degree in education. What I’ve learned so far is this: In today’s global village, English paves the way to new opportunities both at home and abroad.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Poland, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. “Before the economic revolution of the early 1990s,” explains Joanna Antos, operations manager for the American Academy of English in Katowice, Poland, “students learned only Polish and Russian in school. Afterwards, we realized that to attract foreign investments and establish diplomatic relations, we needed English.”

Today, I sense a palpable urgency among my Polish students to learn English. Joanna explains: “In 2004, Poland hopes to join the European Union, where English is the unofficial second language for diplomacy, trade negotiations, and military operations. To be competitive in business and successful in our dealings with the EU and NATO, our leaders –– and future leaders – must know English.” Polish business schools now require English fluency for acceptance into their programs, she says.

For future leaders like Marta Cieszynska, learning English means access to valuable travel and employment opportunities. Marta, one of my students in Wroclaw, hopes to do both this summer, when she’ll travel to the United States to work at Foxwoods Casino. “I want to experience another country,” she says. “I’ll earn more money working at Foxwoods than I would anywhere in Poland. Plus, working in the US will help my English, which will help me get a better job when I come home.”

While learning English helps the people of Poland improve their job and travel prospects, new arrivals to the United States require English for mere survival. This need is particularly acute in Fairfield County, where US Census statistics show that from 1990 to 2000, the county’s seven percent population growth (to 882,567 people) was fueled largely by Asian and Hispanic immigrants settling in the region. Today, nearly one in four county residents speaks a language other than English, up from one in five in 1990.

Agnaldo Bersani, a janitor at Shop-Rite, was one of my first students at LVA. He and his wife Ignacie, who cleans houses for a living, arrived in Danbury from Brazil two years ago. Their son Guillermie was born last July. Their needs echo those of the DaSilva family in Newtown: “We want to earn more money,” says Agnaldo, “but mostly we learn English for our son. By the time he starts school, we want to know enough English to talk to his teachers and help with his homework.”

Much of Danbury’s population growth has come from Brazilian immigrants like the Bersani family. While this growth has put pressure on the region’s ESL providers, it also has clarified their focus. “The goal of LVA Danbury is to teach practical ESL,” says its director, Tom Pinkham. “We teach our students what they need to find work, make doctor’s appointments –– whatever they need to be productive citizens.” As in Poland, the demand for ESL is great and the need urgent: LVA Danbury, a not-for-profit organization offering free literacy and ESL classes currently needs 100 volunteer tutors to teach a waiting list of 500 students.

Another important lesson I’ve learned is that my ESL classes are as much about cultural understanding as they are about the language. My students in Poland, for example, want to know if everyone in the United States owns a gun. They are fascinated by the concept of 12-step programs and singles groups, and they ask why American TV shows always have happy endings. In terms of the language, many are quite familiar with the slang they have picked up from American movies and pop music. My teenage students in particular will “test” their knowledge of swear words with me, which has gotten more than one of them removed from class!

Culturally speaking, the needs of ESL students in greater Danbury are more immediate and direct. Whether I was explaining Halloween or how to answer the phone, my students seemed eager to learn what was needed to “ramp up” and integrate with American society.

If my students’ enthusiasm is any indication, the global demand for ESL will continue to grow –– whether in Brasilia, Brzeg or Botsford. I’m grateful for these experiences, and I’m especially appreciative of my students. People like Bartosz, Marta, Betania and Agnaldo have not only taught me about their own cultures, they have also entrusted me with their common dream of learning English. I’m thrilled that by teaching ESL, I’m helping them unlock the doors to the opportunities that await them.

(Barbara Sibley of Berkshire Road, Sandy Hook, is currently in Poland earning a graduate degree in English.)

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