March 5, 2018
Hillary Hempstead
Two people sitting at a table work together on English writing skills
Caitlyn Pinault ’16, adjunct instructor of English, teaches language classes for those in the Oberlin community. Photo credit: Anna Norris

English as a second language classes provide Oberlin community members with increased confidence around language skills.

If you’ve ever traveled to a country where you don’t speak the native language, you’re likely familiar with the associated challenges: grocery shopping can be difficult; road signs are often an enigma; wayfinding causes confusion. Being unable to effectively communicate is not only frustrating, it can also be intimidating.

Now, instead of being a visitor, imagine living, working, and trying to make a life in this scenario. This situation is a reality for some in Oberlin.

While playing soccer at the Oberlin recreation complex, Libni Lopez encountered a situation like this first-hand. Lopez, student life program coordinator for the Multicultural Resource Center, met a group of individuals who did not speak any English, but for whom Spanish was their native language. Lopez, who grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, is fluent in Spanish and struck up a conversation with the fellow soccer players. The conversation eventually led to this question from the group: where could they find beginning English classes in Oberlin? After some research, Lopez could not find anything available. So he began kicking around the idea to start a beginner-level English as a second language class.

Although a native Spanish speaker, Lopez had never taught Spanish. So he enlisted the help of others in the endeavor. A mutual friend introduced Lopez to Caitlyn Pinault ’16, adjunct instructor of English as a second language and a liaison between SITES and the Spanish program at Oberlin City Schools’ Eastwood Elementary. Pinault volunteered to be an instructor for the fledgling program, and later two Oberlin students, fourth-year Zuri Gutierrez Avila and second-year Jose joined the teaching effort.

Thanks to Lopez, the instructors, and donated classroom space in a local church, anywhere from five to nine individuals meet for lessons three times each week. The volunteer-run class is divided into two sections—language instruction and a cultural lesson. Lopez notes the cultural lesson is key in preparing the students for life in the United States. “In Mexico, when you meet someone for the first time, it would not be uncommon to kiss the person on the cheek. But in the U.S., you might get slapped for this. It’s important to talk about these things so the students can build relationships here.”

Since beginning the program in October 2017, Pinault says she has seen rapid improvement in the students’ language skills. “The students have improved tremendously over the past four months,” says Pinault. “When we began, they were at a novice-low level, meaning that while they could recognize a few words and they couldn't really communicate with them. Now they are solid novice-mid speakers and they can speak about familiar topics using words and phrases we've practiced in class. When I first met the group, they just gave me nervous smiles when I asked ‘How are you?’ Now, they're the ones asking me!”

Oberlin student Jose finds the work gratifying. “I've made new friends, and I enjoy the classes because I feel that both parties learn some things from each other. The students are always willing and eager to engage material and come ready to learn. Some things work, some things don't, but the students allow us to experiment because I believe they appreciate the time and effort that's put into every class. But for me, the time and energy is always worth it.”

For one program participant, the class has helped in everyday situations. “A few weeks ago, I went shopping at a local store. I was looking for shampoo but couldn’t find it. When an employee approached me to offer help, I could understand the question I was being asked. So I asked where to find shampoo. I understood when the employee said, ‘Follow me, I can show you the shampoo.’ In class the next day, I told the group I had a conversation.”

For Lopez, hearing about this type of positive interaction is rewarding. “It’s hard, but there is a definite sense of progress. I can see that they have a new level of confidence and trust in themselves. They come three times a week, and they have yet to cancel. They’re very dedicated.”

While the program began as an introductory English program, Lopez notes it has grown into two distinct classes—introductory and more advanced classes. He hopes to continue the classes for as long as the students need them.

“I am very grateful to have a place where I can learn how to speak the language,” says one class participant. “I’m also grateful to have some camaraderie with others.”

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