English classes aiding older immigrants in area Senior centers cater to language needs

October 26, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

When 61-year-old Mo Ching Lam moved to Linthicum from Rock Springs, Wyo., last year, she saw herself finally living a little, getting a new job and making many friends.

Lam had emigrated from Hong Kong to Wyoming in 1971 and spent about 25 years there cutting vegetables in her family's Chinese restaurant. She moved to Maryland when her son got a job with the Department of Defense in Fort Meade.

But it didn't work out the way she imagined. She didn't have a job. She had no friends.

"My neighbors are all English-speaking people," she said in Cantonese. "I never learned it when I got here because I worked seven days a week. I know a little bit, but not very much. It was hard to make friends."

Loneliness drove her to sign up for an English class at Glen Burnie's Pascal Senior Center -- one of about three Baltimore-area senior centers that offer such courses tailored for the elderly.

The classes cater to seniors who emigrated from all over the world many years ago but who never learned English.

Some, like Lam, want to be able to make friends. Others want to speak with their American-born grandchildren. But for many, learning English is a necessity. Their children have grown up and moved away, and they need to speak and read English to get by.

"We are teaching a survival skill," said Kimo Nam, executive director of the Korean Senior Center in Baltimore, which runs three English classes for about 60 Korean-Americans. When they get letters or bills, they need to know what they say. When they go shopping, they need to speak with the shop people, and when they call 911, they need the other party to know what's the address or what's the problem."

As a result, these classes usually have a different focus than English as a Second Language classes taught in high schools or in community colleges. Louise Fluetsch, who teaches several seniors in two classes at Pascal Senior Center, sometimes brings grocery store ads to class to teach the pronunciation of food products.

Soon Kyo Lim, who heads the intermediate class at the Korean Senior Center, said the basic phrases he teaches his students include "Where is the post office?" and "My door is broken."

And at the center's advanced class last week, seniors read and recited such words as "electricity," "rent" and "utilities," penciling in Korean translations next to English words in their textbooks.

Ho Kyun Lee, 69, who has been in the advanced class for two years, said his improved English has helped him make more friends. He moved to Baltimore from Taejon, South Korea, with his wife 15 years ago to help their daughter operate a restaurant. Lee said they didn't have time for classes because their lives were "only work, work, work." When he retired two years ago, he signed up for a class.

"I don't want to depend on other people because of language," said Lee, speaking a mixture of Korean and English.

"Now, during fishing, shopping, anytime, I speak broken English, but I can communicate what I want to say."

Lee, an avid learner, said he practices English by watching the Weather Channel and local news on television.

Learning a foreign language can be frustrating for seniors.

"Sometimes you show me words, and I forget them quickly," said Santo Lapi, 66.

Lapi immigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1965 but didn't think he had to learn English formally. Before he retired five years ago, he was an assembly-line worker at a Baltimore factory, where he had many Italian friends.

When he retired, he wanted to make non-Italian friends but found that conversing in English was difficult. So he began classes at Pascal Senior Center, where he has been struggling with the language ever since.

"I try to learn, but the memory of the older people " Lapi said, pausing to find the right words. "It's hard."

Recent studies have found that seniors can learn as well as younger people, said Ellen Skilton-Sylvester, an assistant professor at the Temple University College of Education in Philadelphia. Skilton-Sylvester, who coordinates a Philadelphia program that trains students to teach English to elderly Cambodian immigrants, said seniors just learn more slowly.

Skilton-Sylvester added that seniors feel more comfortable learning English with other people their age.

"It's knowing that there are other people like them, that they're not the only older person struggling to learn," Skilton-Sylvester said. "I've seen people say, 'You don't know how to do that either?' And that really encourages them."

The classes also form a social support network for the students. Chenda Miller, 77, of Glen Burnie said she loves the the camaraderie. She emigrated from Panama 16 years ago, and she and fellow students often chat about their native countries and throw after-class parties.

"I like to know people from different countries, different cultures," she said. "We have good times."

Lam, speaking in a mixture of English and Cantonese, said she is happy to be getting to know people here.

"If you don't know English in this country, very hard, you know," she said. "Now I go to church and I can talk to people and make friends."

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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