Breaking down the language barrier
By Marcela Flores Iga
Each Thursday at 5:40 p.m. a group of 25 immigrants meet outside
the East Boston Police Station at Meridian Street. They come here
to overcome their frustration; they come to learn English.
van is waiting. Sgt. Michael O’Connor drives
them to the Dom Savio High School, where their teacher, Sgt.
is already waiting.
"Please remain quiet," says McCarthy to the chatty students.
“I want to learn English,” said Gloria Velazquez,
one of the students. “I feel so frustrated because I can’t
do what I want to do just because I can’t speak English...and
it is so hard to learn it. This language is loco.”
But according to McCarthy, they come here not just
to learn. “Mostly,
they come to socialize,” he said. “They love to chat.”
Most of the 25 students, all over 30, come from
Colombia (only five of them come from El Salvador, Brazil or
They share the same motivation to learn English – they want
to find better jobs and be able to build a new life in this country.
They love to participate, McCarthy said, and they
all do it at the same time. The three-hour class becomes a strange
mix of loud
Spanish and slowly-pronounced English. “I have a lot of patience,” McCarthy
said. “And they have a lot of energy.”
two hours of class, the students are still energized, enthusiastically
responding to their teacher’s questions.
As the class begins, McCarthy warns the students, “I’m
going to speak only English from now on.” But McCarthy, who
is fluent in Spanish, has no choice but to constantly translate
what he is saying.
McCarthy’s teaching method is to encourage students to speak
English in everyday situations, such as going to the market or
talking to a lawyer, while perfecting the pronunciation. “Learning
a language is about learning the sounds, he said, “but many
of the sounds do not even exist in Spanish, and that what’s
makes it more difficult.”
He added, “I try to teach them correct English, but the
pronunciation of people from Boston is so different that they still
can’t understand what someone is saying.”
He urges his students on.
“Remember, you have to build your confidence,” McCarthy
tells the class. “That’s why all of you will have to
come up to the front and read your assignments in English out loud.”
“Ay no,” everyone chants at the same
McCarthy’s efforts to reach out and the students’ enthusiasm,
in many cases, turn out to be not enough.
The process of fully adapting – of mastering this foreign
tongue – is slow.
“Even after they complete the program, I haven’t
seen any major progress in their jobs,” –Sgt. McCarthy
“Even after they complete the program, I haven’t seen
any major progress in their jobs,” McCarthy said.
Many of the students have taken the program more
than once. “This
is my second year,” said a student, Adriana Jaramillo. “The
class is once a week, so everything I learn today I will forget
for next class.”
McCarthy thinks that alongside the language barrier
resides the barrier of culture. As the Hispanic population grows
in East Boston,
it’s easier for immigrants to stay inside their comfort zone. “Living
in East Boston is for them like being at home, everyone speaks
Spanish in here,” he said.
though they learn English, they will be Hispanics. All feeling
caught in the middle,
trapped inside a self-created bubble that helps keep ties to their
roots, yet also keeps them from fully integrating to their new
country and fulfilling their hopes of a better life.