East Boston

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.

A van is waiting. Sgt. Michael O’Connor drives them to the Dom Savio High School, where their teacher, Sgt. Arthur McCarthy, 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 Dominican Republic). 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.”

After 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 time.

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.

Even 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.

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