Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Language Waitlists A Growing Barrier for Citizenship

By Erika Templeton

BRIGHTON--In the basement of Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston on Cambridge Street, The Literacy Connection's citizenship class is in session. Today's topic is the branches of government, and voices call out to questions in numerous accents.

Most of the students' responses are correct: Supreme Court judges are appointed for life; the cabinet is part of the executive branch; Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House.

By the end of the course, students will be prepped for 100 possible questions, but for most taking the test, the facts are easy to learn. Learning the language is more challenging.

"I have a man here tonight who didn?t pass," said Sister Pat Andrews, who teaches the class. "It's because of the English."

Without a grasp of the language, naturalization is nearly impossible for immigrants. As the waitlist for English for Speakers of Other Languages programs in Boston grows, many are left with less chance of citizenship.

In 2007, more than 4,000 people were on the list and faced up to a three year wait before enrolling in classes, according to a report from the Mayor's Office of New Bostonians. From 1990 to 2000, the report found, Boston's foreign-born population grew by 32 percent. About 22,000, or 15 percent, of immigrants live in Allston and Brighton.

Non-profit and volunteer groups have sprung up around the city to meet the immigrants' growing demand for English classes, but they are pressed for time and resources.

"I would say that the need probably exceeds what the community is able to provide," said Sarah Markell, head librarian at Boston Public Library's Honan-Allston branch, which offers free assistance to immigrants.

The Literacy Connection's waitlist is up to 200 names long at any given time. "I could probably be here 12 to 16 hours a day," said Andrews, "and the people would come." She gives out brochures and encourages people to call other programs in the area, or go to the library for help.

"The organizations that exist to offer classes are, as always, struggling for funding," Markell said. "That will continue to be the case as the financial situation continues to force state and local budgets to be cut."

At the library's Waitlist ESL Event on October 29, residents received Oxford Picture Dictionaries and information on English classes in the neighborhood. The library also hosts "conversation groups" three times a week.

"We offer a place for folks to come in and practice speaking English more informally," said Jennifer Koerber, an employee of the branch. For some immigrants who are not ready for group sessions, the library offers information and helps them navigate the often-confusing network of ESOL programs.

"If there's one thing that's true about Boston, it's that there?s 10 different programs for any given thing," Koerber said. "The city is working to eliminate duplication, but there really isn't that one standard thing across all institutions."

When Vilma Martines immigrated to Boston from her home in Ecuador 10 years ago, she knew little English and registered at the library for help. She was on the ESL Waitlist for two years before enrolling at The Literacy Connection.

The program specializes in one-on-one training for people who need individual attention "to help bring them up to a level where they can really function," Andrews said. "We provide a service in the sense that some people come with very little skills and it's hard for them to go into a class of 25."

Martines' English lessons have helped her begin to build a life in Allston. She has passed her citizenship test, and smiles when she describes working as a teacher's assistant at a pre-school in Watertown.

Forgetting the word "toddler," she uses hand gestures to describe "the little ones, the little children" she works with. Sometimes, when her students can't understand her, Martines writes things down, draws pictures, or asks her coworker to help translate.

"You have to really listen," Martines said. "I do. Sister Pat told me, 'You have to speak slowly.'" These days, Martines comes to The Literacy Connection to work on her vocabulary and accent.

Meanwhile, the class of immigrants down the hall are still working on the basics. Once they've proven their understanding of US history, they must answer questions about their own history. The personal answers come easily, if they can understand what is being asked.

"Have you ever been incarcerated?" Andrews asks, pretending to be a US Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. "You think they'll know what incarcerated means? If they don?t know, I tell them to have the question repeated, or say, 'I'm unfamiliar with that word.' Never answer to something if you don?t understand it."

Andrews teaches her students up to three versions of a question, so they don't get caught up on wording.

"Listen for the verb," she tells the class when they are stumped by a question on the law-making process. "Try to get these verbs and attach them to the government branches."

Three phrases, "makes the law," "interprets the law" and "carries out the law" are scrawled on a chalk board at the front of the room, verbs underlined for emphasis.

"I think Great Britain is hard to write," says a young woman in the front row as the topic switches to American independence. "I will write England." A sympathetic chuckle fills the room as heads nod in agreement.

Could you pass the citizenship test? Test your skills here, with a sample set of questions from the Boston Globe.

Questions and comments are welcome at

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