By Aine Dougherty, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Teresa Barton’s voice echoes through the brightly lit room, enunciating every word clearly and loudly as she asks her students about any miscommunications they’ve had since coming to America. A beat of silence passes before a clamor of voices fills the space, each student wanting to share their experiences and practice their English at the same time.
One student, Mia, slowly and carefully recounts an awkward encounter when she was meeting someone for the first time – she went to bow, a traditional greeting in Korean culture, while the American opened her arms wide and leaned in for a hug.
Lighthearted anecdotes belie a deeper problem that many Korean immigrants face when they come to America. The language barrier can seem intimidating and insurmountable, even during the simplest of tasks, especially when the new administration under President Trump appears unsympathetic to immigrant concerns.
“It’s very daunting to move to a new country, where you might speak only a little bit of the language, or might speak none of the language,” says Brandon Lee, Communications and Research Coordinator of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago. According to Lee, one-third of Asian Americans in the Chicago metro area have limited English proficiency (LEP), meaning their primary language is not English and they have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English. With this statistic in mind, Chicago-based organizations like AAAJ and the Hana Center (the result of a merger between Korean American Community Services and the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center) are working to improve language access for Asian Americans and immigrants on all fronts.
For Koreans, the roots of the language barrier run deep and extend back to their home country, according to Julie Cho, one of the vice presidents of the Korean American Association of Chicago, There’s little need for ordinary Korean citizens to learn English, and English as a Second Language (ESL) education in Korea is fairly ineffective due in part to the stark differences in grammar, Cho says. It’s also difficult to find time to learn English once Korean immigrants arrive. “When they come to the states,” Cho says, “they have to jump right into the workforce to support their children, and they don’t have the opportunity or the time to learn English.”
However, ESL students at the Hana Center are committed to learning English despite their busy work schedules and family obligations. Mia is one such student. She travels an hour and a half to get to the Hana Center on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in order to attend the Intermediate ESL class taught by Barton.
Mia sacrifices her time to come to the Hana Center because she says she finds it frustrating that she knows what she wants to say in her mind, but she can’t express it in English. This frustration lies at the base of many of the motivations students have for attending ESL classes and learning English.
Barton says that the students fill out intake forms before the class starts so she can determine their goals and priorities, and they hone in on these objectives during discussions in class. The Hana Center may have begun as a space for Korean community services, but Barton says that it caters to the community at large, which means that her ESL class is actually a mixture of Korean students and students from a variety of Central and South American countries. The class focuses on the needs of the students as a whole, and according to Barton, the students’ goals are similar across cultures, including to speak “more comfortably with their neighbors, to be able to talk with their child’s teacher, and to be able to be comfortable around the supermarket.”
“We focus a lot on everyday experiences – taking the bus, navigating health insurance, making a doctor’s appointment,” Barton says. In addition, Barton says, the class features job skills lessons like writing resumes, and the Hana Center also offers English language classes with a civic education focus for immigrants looking to become naturalized.
“It’s not necessarily the first thing that someone thinks about when they think about language access,” Lee says, echoing the importance of language access for more simple, ordinary tasks. “If you’re a new immigrant, whether you’re a citizen or not, do you know how to get from Point A to Point B? Do you know how you ride the bus? If you’re a parent, do you know how to navigate the school system? If you’re a new student, do you understand your homework?
AAAJ is working to create a long-term plan for language access that addresses these everyday concerns, says Lee. “I think the goal at the end of it is a statewide language access bill. It’s a statewide bill that assures that no matter what language you speak, you’re able to access city resources, local resources.”
In 2013, AAAJ worked with other groups to advocate for and help pass Illinois House Resolution 40, which created a Task Force for Language Access to Government Services that works to promote legislation that will further AAAJ’s end goal of comprehensive language access. Lee says the Task Force is just one of the steps along the path, which also includes “things like preserving the Immigrant Services line item in the Illinois state budget, which provides for some of these outreach services to the immigrant communities. It means working locally with the Chicago Public Schools to make sure that English language learners get the resources they are entitled to under federal law. It means pushing the district to go above and beyond that.”
AAAJ is also trying to get LEP Asian Americans and immigrants involved, in part through a program that works with partner organizations to incorporate a civics section into ESL classes.
“It also means working with adult English language learners to not only raise awareness of the resources that are available to them, but also to empower them to be advocates,” Lee says.
However, the Center’s part in the push for language access for Korean immigrants is limited by a lack of local funding for the programs, including the adult ESL classes. Barton says she didn’t know if their financial struggles were going to change for better or for worse in the future.
“I’m hoping that these programs stay funded,” Barton says, “because I think that they’re extremely important, and I think my students learn a lot from them.”
Lee says he’s glad no “English-only” groundswell has swept across Illinois since the election of President Trump and that no measures have been taken to counteract the fight for language access, but he also acknowledges that the new administration is a roadblock for the organization’s long-term campaign for language access.
“Because of the national trends, because of the national rhetoric and policy coming out of D.C., we have to push some concrete state and local policies that counteract that,” Lee says. Unfortunately, this shift in priorities focused on “safety” for the community means that the campaign for language access is in danger of being placed on the back burner.
“We are having at best these dual priorities, but then at worst we’re moving one thing and not language access,” Lee says. However, he says it’s simply “the reality of the moment.”
As for the ESL students at the Hana Center, besides sporadic jokes about President Trump during class and the occasional question about whether he will actually carry out all of his proposed policies related to immigration, Barton says neither the atmosphere nor the content in her classroom has changed since Trump took office, and she also hasn’t noticed a change in her students’ desire or willingness to learn English.
“As far as really trying hard to speak English and to learn English, that hasn’t changed at all. They’ve always been really adamant about it,” Barton says.
Although learning English may be important for Korean immigrants and other ESL students to overcome the language barrier and to able to comfortably navigate everyday life, their home countries and cultures remain extremely important. During class, students jumped at the chance to share stories about cultural differences between America and Korea, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador.
“They love talking about their home countries and cultures and traditions,” Barton says. “It’s a big part of who they are.”