Tackling demands of new languages

Instruction: As Howard's Asian and Hispanic populations burgeon, so do courses in English and Spanish.

March 18, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

During the first several years that Sun Hui Kim lived in the United States, English was an afterthought.

As a homemaker, the Korean native didn't need to know how to say much more than "Hello," "How are you" and "Fine" to get by in this country.

But now that she's working at a deli, learning English has become a priority - so much so that she drives from her home in Silver Spring five nights a week to attend classes at the Power Academy in Ellicott City.

"We go to the store, market, everywhere we go, they say, `What you say? What you say?' so we feel [that it's] really embarrassing," Kim said.

The private Power Academy Inc. opened about a month ago, offering college exam prep courses and tutoring for children, and English for immigrant children and adults. On Baltimore National Pike west of Rogers Avenue, the school is a stone's throw from the Golden Triangle - home to a number of Korean retail stores - and focuses on the Korean community, with brochures, advertisements, and even its marquee spelling out its services in Korean.

E. Paul Choe, executive director and vice president of the company, said the services are necessary because many immigrants who have sufficient language skills to open a business don't speak well enough to give their customers the highest level of service.

"A lot of Korean-Americans ... need to learn not only English, but American culture - how to open a bank account, American history, African-American history. We teach them so they can learn ... about the people they live with."

The academy is tapping into a growing market in Howard County and the surrounding area. The Hispanic and Asian populations in the county more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, the former from 3,699 to 7,490, and the latter from 8,098 to 19,124.

And being able to communicate with foreign-speaking workers is of such growing importance in the business community that Howard Community College recently began offering Spanish courses geared for the workplace. The number of people enrolling in their English as a Second Language classes doubled during the past two years. HCC enrolls nearly 1,000 students in ESL courses, with more than 70 nations represented, according to Patricia Keaton, executive director of work force development.

The Power Academy has seen classes, and profits, grow at the company's headquarters in Annandale, Va., which opened in 1999. Although it originally targeted the Korean community, the center teaches immigrants of all nationalities. According to Choe, revenues have grown about 20 percent since it opened.

Although English classes for foreign speakers are plentiful in the region, and some are free, people will pay for a tutorial, sometimes because they learn particular skills, said Teresa D. O'Donnell, executive director of the commission on English Language Program Accreditation, which accredits schools' ESL courses. The Power Academy is licensed by the Virginia Board of Education, Choe said.

"There's a lot more hand-holding" in private schools, O'Donnell said. "They also tend to have small classes, and sometimes they do have a special focus ... like English for business and ... science."

The Power Academy in the Ellicott City center will be able to train about 150 students, Choe said. It has started seven classes and attracted about 25 students, he said.

A month of English classes at the Power Academy - two hours daily, five days a week - costs $260. Tutorial classes - English and math for pupils in kindergarten through the eighth grade, and preparation for the Scholastic Achievement Test for students in grades 9 through 12 - cost between $15 and $20 an hour.

Although the centers attract mostly Asian, particularly Korean, clients, all courses are taught in English by native English-speaking instructors.

Distance seems not to deter students. As Kim is willing to travel from as far as Silver Spring to the Ellicott City branch, some travel from as far as Richmond, Va., to the Annandale branch.

Nor does age. Chae Pom Ho, director of the Ellicott City center, said, "Even at 50, they say, `I need to learn English.'"

And the students seem glad to have the center.

"Korean people [with] speaking problem, a lot of problem, tell them the academy [is] here," Kim said.

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