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Stories of Impact › Learning English—and A Whole Lot More

Learning English—and A Whole Lot More

It’s 6 p.m. at the Pickleweed Park Community Center in the Canal neighborhood in San Rafael. As you walk down the corridors, you get glimpses of a girls’ volleyball game, young scouts exploring a globe, a karate class, kids getting help with their homework, and one of the many English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that Canal Alliance holds there.

On this particular night, in an intermediate ESL class, Maxine Sattizahn is focusing on adverbs of frequency: words like seldom, often, sometimes, and never. And, to put a fine point on it, teaching a rule that’s obscure even for native speakers of English—these adverbs precede a verb unless the verb is a form of “to be.”

But from the moment it starts, the class is about much more than English grammar. While these words aren’t part of the lesson, they permeate the room: camaraderie, humor, courage, support, commitment, and—perhaps most of all—confidence, as the students take another step in becoming integrated into their community.

It’s clear from talking to some of the fifteen or so students, whose native languages are Spanish and Vietnamese, that they are motivated to learn English and succeed in their new lives here.

Sonia, who works at Macy’s in Corte Madera, says “it feels good” to use the English she’s learning when she answers a customer’s question. In fact, her responsibilities at work have increased along with her proficiency in English, to the point that she now thinks about becoming a manager.

And while she doesn’t yet have children, she already sees the advantages of knowing English when that time comes. “I want to help them with their homework—that’s very important—and I want to go to their school so I can talk with their teachers.”

And for Marcos, he says his job as a cook is much easier now that he can communicate with his boss and co-workers in English. “Before, someone had to translate. And I’m talking with my boss about taking a higher position.”

Marcos related another benefit of learning English: He recently went to a health clinic and explained for the first time in English what was going on, without the need of a translator.

From learning how to read a train schedule, to practicing asking and answering questions, and to going over an assignment writing postcards, the class is a lesson not just in grammar but in negotiating life in Marin, and in America.

Funding ESL classes—ones that focus on basic English skills and others geared to using English in various jobs—is one way the Marin Community Foundation is helping local immigrants become integrated into the community as welcomed and productive residents.

“The benefits of learning English hardly need to be mentioned,” says Martin Steinman, ESL coordinator at Canal Alliance. “Students are able to get better jobs, help their kids with their homework, and open the way to a more full participation on society. Most gratifying of all is to see their confidence develop as they feel more comfortable with the language and the ways of Americans. English isn’t a door that opens to them. It’s a path that takes effort to climb but leads them always higher.”

As class ends, there’s a strong sense that one more step along that path has been taken.

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