East Boston

Unifying by demystifying: McCarthy's story
By Marcela Flores Iga

Sgt. Arthut M. McCarthy is the English Teacher for 25 immigrants.

Arthur M. McCarthy hasn’t just witnessed the transition of East Boston over the last decade as Latin American immigrants have transformed the neighborhood. The East Boston police sergeant has helped bridge cultures, teaching Spanish to police officers and English to new immigrants.

McCarthy moved to his wife’s homeland of Puerto Rico in the 1980s after being laid off in police department cutbacks.

“I not only learned the language, but I fell in love with the culture,” he said of his time there as an assistant manager for the Caribbean Hilton Hotel.

So it made sense, after he returned to the Boston Police Department a decade ago, that his career would lead him to East Boston. Three years ago that’s just what happened.

And as he began to patrol the neighborhood that is now the destination of much of the city’s rapidly growing Hispanic population, he was surprised to learn that 90 percent of police officers there didn’t know a word in Spanish.

“East Boston has changed so much,” McCarthy said. “It started as a mainly Italian community. A few years ago there was a substantial Asian community, but now the majority is from Latin America, mainly from Colombia and El Salvador.”

Teaching Spanish to police officers

McCarthy's manual cover: "A unique Method for teaching a simple yet effective way to communicate where language barriers exists."

With the change of demographics, came a gap of culture. The language barrier generated conflicts of misunderstanding, McCarthy said. Minor infractions sometimes flared into major altercations between police and people in the community who literally couldn’t understand each other.

“Communication became the real problem,” he said.

McCarthy started giving Spanish lessons to officers at the Boston Police Academy. With the help of a colleague from Northeastern University, he designed a reference manual to teach Spanish to officers as part of a program of the Boston Police Academy. “I call it the ALLM or Anticipatory Language Learning Method.”

Manual's Preface
[Extract]

"Spanish is now the primary language spoken in the homes of more than 30million people residing in the United States. Therefore this material is designed to provide law enforcement personnel with the tools to improve communication that will help create partnerships between the police and the community…
This method emphasizes pronunciation, listening skills, and control through role playing and guided situations
The first introduction to language is sound. To achieve success, A.L.L. suggests the following: practice, practice, practice."

McCarthy’s method is based on his belief that communication begins even before someone opens his or her mouth. For him, everything starts in the moments before a police officer approaches a person.

If the officer feels the tension of knowing he’s not going to be able to communicate, then the “adrenaline and frustration” build up, which can be ingredients for disaster, he said.

“My method is about preventing loss of control … it’s not grammar or spelling … It’s only about pronunciation, phonetics and self-confidence.”

McCarthy’s Spanish manual focuses on a practical approach. It emphasizes pronunciation, listening skills through role playing and giving police references that are quick and useful sources for handling specific situations.

If, for example, a police officer pulls a car over, he may look for phrases classified under traffic situations and find this:

Do you have a license?
Tienes licensia?
[Tee-ae-ness lee-sen-see-a?]

Not only is the right close-ended question laid out but so is a guide to its phonetic pronunciation.

This way, McCarthy said every officer can feel prepared and confident enough to approach a Spanish-speaking person in any given situation. “It’s normal for people to be surprised when they hear an officer talking in Spanish, but they really appreciate it and become more comfortable and trustful.”

Sgt. Arthur McCarthy reviews vowel pronunciation with his class.

Teaching English to Immigrants

However, he knew this wasn’t enough. Three years ago, he also started to give English lessons to immigrants as part of a 14-week program. McCarthy used the same approach: no grammar, no spelling, just phonetics and phrases to use in everyday life, at work, in the supermarket, with the lawyer, at the hospital.

Although his program has had a good response, the first year he didn’t know what to expect.

McCarthy wanted to encourage people to attend despite their immigration status so he started promoting it at the local churches, so people could overcome their fear of approaching the police. That way he gained a sense of trust and a stronger bond.

“Half of my students don’t have documents. They know I know. They know I won’t ask them about it,” he said.

The attendance, however, has remained uneven. “It is hard because people are struggling between two, three or more jobs…they are just too tired to go to class or they just didn’t have the time,” McCarthy said.

He also had to consider the weather issue, which may seem trivial, but can be a factor for those moving from a mild to a much colder climate.

“I decided to start classes in November. It was a mistake. By January only three students were going to class and they were freezing. No more classes in November, only during warm weather. Latinos love warm weather,” he said.

Finally, to maintain the attendance he decided to give classes one night each week, when the majority was more likely to be off from work and when he had free time. He also found it was effective to charge for the classes.

“You get nothing for nothing,” he said. “But when people invest money, they show more commitment.”

This year, each of the 25 students will pay $75 and all the money goes to pay for the use of space inside a local school, for the books and other materials as well as for the staff involved in the program.

Over the years, the program and his method has been adapted to fit the students needs, he said, in a trial-and-error way. “You can’t assume anything,” he said. “I am constantly reinventing it.” He has gone from a traditional testing method to a “cooperative learning experience,” in which the students who know more help others learn more too.

There are no grades, he said. McCarthy knows that someone has learned when he or she can initiate a conversation in English. He teaches by asking questions and repeating phrases “until pronounced to perfection.”

Teaching Spanish to American businessmen

Members of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce announced new services to businessmen in the neighborhood. Among those, spanish classes.

Recently, McCarthy has designed a 10-week program to teach Spanish to business people of East Boston. He started with a group of 25 people. The Logan Airport Embassy Suites Hotel provided a space for the classes free of charge. The classes are part of a service provided by the East Boston Chamber of Commerce to business that are already registered as members and pay an annual fee.

“ Our community is changing. New strong businesses owned by Hispanic people are growing… They are our friends, our neighbors but we can’t communicate with them,” said Diane Modica, Director of the EBCC.

The goal is to integrate East Boston to the changing business culture, so every business has better chances to generate growth and stability, said Emily Haber, Director of Boston Main Streets.

Other Stories:

East Boston Home
Breaking down the language barrier
Unifying by demystifying: McCarthy's story

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