Speak Easy

ESL volunteer Rachel Musgrove reviews the basics, like the alphabet and vowel pronunciation, to assess the lesson plan for the day.

On the bookshelf of a cramped back room at the Monterey Peace and Justice Center, Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony and Survival stands alongside a well-worn Snow White picture book. Opposite the bookshelf, there is a break room setup on folding coffee tables, complete with a microwave, a bottle of Nestle creamer and Folger’s instant coffee. A constant and loud thud shakes thin walls as it rings out from the judo class next door.

Despite the noise and small space, Rachel Musgrove and Steven Silbert begin pulling chairs into place around a single rectangular table in the center of the room, which is angled toward a white dry-erase board. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the setting for a free ESL class taught by students of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ TESOL program (teaching English to speakers of other languages).

Tonight, the volunteer teaching duo is Musgrove and Silbert. The students are native Spanish speakers, but unlike a formal classroom that’s divided by grade, age or comprehension, this is a drop-in class, offered to anyone who wants to improve their English skills.

The class begins with a sign-up sheet where students write just their first name. Musgrove and Silbert both watch their students eagerly – it’s a simple enough task, assuming students know the English alphabet and, at a basic level, how to read and write in their native tongue.

After the sign-in comes verbal introductions. Forty-five-year-old Gabriela Garcia begins saying in steady, thoughtful phrases: “My name is Gabriela. I live in Seaside. I like to cook and… ” She pauses, stares at the ceiling for a bit and then the word comes to her, “… exercise.”

Isaac Ruiz, 9, speeds through his introduction: “My name is Isaac and uh – mostly – uh, I like playing trumpet a lot.”

Then it’s 15-year-old Arturo Navarro’s turn. He’s a new arrival to the U.S. who doesn’t speak a lick of English. He looks down at 9-year-old Ruiz, who translates the exercise for him. Silbert and Musgrove both talk him through the steps with a repetitious “My name is… ” They get through his full name and learn he’s originally from Obregón, Mexico.

With a new drop-in, Silbert and Musgrove need to adapt their already-loose lesson plan, which was supposed to build off of Garcia’s progress last week.

“A lot of the times we don’t have regular attendance like [Garcia’s],” Silbert says. “If we get new students, the ones that came last week are getting a repeat.”

Adaptation and flexibility are keys to keeping the class moving forward. While they’d planned on building Garcia’s vocabulary on the theme of shopping, they decide to revisit the alphabet and play produce-themed hangman.

“We stick to our plan about one out of 10 times,” Musgrove says.

Despite the informality of the class, the students are meant to walk out with a practical use of English, even if it’s simple phrases. Musgrove remembers teaching medical phrases to one of her students in the beginning of the semester who was going into shoulder surgery.

“There are medical translators there, but she wanted some degree of independence and personal knowledge of what was going to happen to her,” Musgrove says.

While translation services offered around the county in hospitals or at the DMV are helpful, many of the free volunteer-run ESL teaching services are filling the void for the decreasing availability and flexibility of formal classes.

Cathy Andrews, program director of the Monterey County Free Libraries Literacy Program, has seen the need for more ESL classes firsthand.

“There was actually an increase in need for ESL classes after the economic crisis [of 2008],” she says. The MCFL Literacy Program has a 30-year record of running various literacy programs like one-on-one tutoring, conversation groups and – when they get a grant – actual ESL classes. Six out of 17 county library branches offer some sort of literacy program.

“Many of our students can go the entire day speaking their first language,” Andrews says. “In a lot of cases, they just stay inside their homes and only need English when they’re grocery shopping.”

But when it comes to their personal goals, like expanding their business, passing a citizenship test or even getting promoted from a busboy to a bartender, speaking or reading English is a necessity. This is what Andrews calls “survival English,” or English that gets her students where they want to be in life.

For 9-year-old Ruiz, he appears to be on his way, and he can hardly contain his excitement when yelling out the final answer to hangman: “APPLE! ‘A’ for apple!”

Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

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