Pittsburgh's New Immigrants: Learning English, the 'crucial passport'

Andres Lopez, whose wife is six months pregnant, wishes he could understand the doctor better when they go to checkups.

Trained as an electrical engineer in Ecuador, Mr. Lopez, 31, arrived in Pittsburgh in January so his wife, Anabel Castillo, could pursue a Ph.D. in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. But the English classes he had in high school and college, which he “didn’t pay much attention” to, didn’t prepare him for everyday conversation in America.

“In the street, people sometimes talk and I don’t understand,” he said.

So he developed a rigorous self-improvement plan. On Tuesdays, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., he attends an English class run by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. From 4 to 5 p.m. the same day, he’s at the University of Pittsburgh, and at 6 p.m. he gets together with a conversation group at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill. On Wednesdays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. he’s at Carnegie Mellon University for a lesson taught through the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. And on Thursdays, he has another 3 1/2 hours of classes.

Mr. Lopez is one of a few thousand students enrolled in ESL classes in Pittsburgh, most of whom are immigrants. For him and others, learning English is a crucial passport to negotiating day-to-day demands.  

READ the complete Post-Gazette series: Pittsburgh’s New Immigrants

Talking with social service workers, visiting doctors and nurses, helping children with school — all this requires English, said Sheila Velez-Martinez, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Immigration Law Clinic. While it might be possible for newcomers to speak their native languages in immigrant hubs like Miami, Los Angeles or New York, that’s not an option in Pittsburgh, she said. 

Many immigrants work long hours, often logging 12 hours a day in fields like construction or the food industry, making it difficult to find time for English classes, she said. 

But for those who can, there are several options in Pittsburgh, most of them free. Many of these classes focus on building conversation skills, often with an emphasis on the vocabulary required to navigate daily life in Pittsburgh. And classes are often held in the evenings, accommodating different work schedules.  

When he arrived, Mr. Lopez started with the library conversation groups, since no registration was required, then learned about other programs and began putting his name on waiting lists. He said the classes are all slightly different, complementing each other. 

On a summer Tuesday night, in a small meeting room with red walls and modular furniture at the Carnegie Library’s Squirrel Hill branch, Mr. Lopez joined a group of five other students to chat about superstitions. (In Venezuela, it is bad luck to put your purse on the floor because money could fly away; In China, orange trees are bought at New Year’s, because in Chinese the words “orange” and “auspicious” sound similar.)

The group then switched to a game of Apples to Apples Junior, where players try to match different phrases to a category. The category was “smart,” and as he read the cards aloud, Mr. Lopez came across “the United States.” “Better not make jokes about that,” he said, as his classmates laughed.

Attendance at the library classes fluctuates week to week, since they often draw tourists or short-term visitors. 

The AIU reaches about 700 students a year with its adult ESL classes, which focus on helping students complete daily tasks, from reading a bus schedule or going to the bank, to beefing up employment skills and getting ready for post-secondary education and training, said AIU spokeswoman Sarah McCluan. Students in the AIU class hail from more than 40 countries, and spend varying amounts of time in the program depending on their proficiency and goals.

In an annual health day event, the AIU partners its students with local health care workers to familiarize them with medical terminology and give the health employees practice working with non-native English speakers.

GPLC offers ESL classes as part of its larger mission to improve literacy, with classes varying from beginning English courses that cater to refugees by focusing on vocational readiness to small group tutoring sessions that emphasize practical and colloquial English. As of May 2014, GPLC had 115 volunteer tutors and 754 students.

On a recent Wednesday in a glass entryway at Carnegie Mellon University, Patrick “Peabo” Winschel introduced himself as “the best English teacher in the world,” over-annunciating each syllable with rounded lips. Calling it “English by baptism of fire,” he said his GPLC classes try to improve students’ fluency and give them a basic understanding of current events, using news articles as tools: “To me, we need to concentrate on what’s happening locally.”

Natalie Shyva, 33, of Ukraine, said she enrolled in the class after realizing the British English she learned in school was difficult for many Americans to understand, recalling an encounter at a coffee shop where a barista misunderstood her pronunciation of the word “hot.” As an engineer, she said she needs to be able not only to speak technically, but also bond with her colleagues so they can work as a team, requiring her to learn colloquialisms and “Pittsburghese.”

Her classmate, Justin Hsieh, 35, a U.S. citizen originally from Taiwan, said that even though he spends all day on the phone speaking to small business owners as a PNC customer service representative, when he makes mistakes, colleagues don’t correct him. And they often throw around expressions he doesn’t understand, like “bring home the bacon.” But in the Wednesday night ESL class, or on the phone with his GPLC tutor, he is constantly asked to repeat himself until he gets it right, which is necessary if he wants to improve, he said. 

Goodwill of Western Pennsylvania offers classes in Lawrenceville and the South Side, emphasizing daily living themes and career readiness, said Judy Martier, director of education assessment and training. Employing one full-time and two part-time instructors to teach between 40 and 50 students a year, Goodwill caters to a large population of refugees, and works with its students to help them find jobs. Its classes range from beginning English to a civics class that teaches immigrants about democracy, preparing them for the U.S. citizenship test. 

Ms. Velez-Martinez, who works with immigrants requesting asylum or undergoing deportation proceedings, said many of her clients complain that they are ill-equipped to help children with homework. Children of immigrants often learn English faster than their parents, so classes that cater to adults are critical. Lori Como, GPLC associate director, said it’s also important for adult classes to be flexible because of students’ work schedules and their transportation and childcare challenges. 

An alternative to these free classes is the University of Pittsburgh’s English Language Institute, which offers intensive and part-time programs, as well as preparation courses for the TOEFL, a standardized test that foreign students often have to take when they apply to U.S. universities. Tuition for the full-time 13-week program is around $4,300, while TOEFL classes fall between $165 and $400. 

Jinny Jeon, 29, of South Korea, said she took a Pitt ELI course to prepare her for academic work in English, as she pursues a master’s degree in accounting. The classes cater to those interested in attending college in the U.S. she said, while the GPLC course she attends emphasizes the language needed for communicating on the street. 

On top of the 8 1/2 hours of class he takes each week, Mr. Lopez practices English in his spare time by reading the news and watching American TV shows on Netflix. Recently, he’s been captivated by “Ink Master,” about tattoo parlors, using subtitles so he can listen and read at the same time. He also participates in a book club organized by the main Carnegie Library branch in Oakland geared toward non-native English speakers, where July’s focus was “The Reason I Jump” by Naoki Higashida.

Despite his efforts, Mr. Lopez said he continues to think in Spanish, then translate. And many of his friends in Pittsburgh speak Spanish, slowing his progress. Acknowledging his pronunciation errors (he has particular difficulty with the “th” sound, in words such as three and thirsty), Mr. Lopez said he sees learning English as a continuous journey. 

The classes he has been taking play an important role in helping immigrants assimilate.

“There’s a lot of talk in Pittsburgh about welcoming immigrants,” Ms. Como said, and providing them opportunities to learn English is a key part of the process. “They love Pittsburgh and want to make it home.”

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters

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