LEWISTON — Audience members at the Great Falls Forum got a lesson Friday in the challenges and satisfactions of teaching English to adults who speak other languages.

With paper and pencils at each table of the Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall, about three dozen attendees attempted to copy the swirls of a phrase written in an Arabic language. They also observed interactions between teachers and students as each attempted to connect when neither knew the other’s language.

The excitement of teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages classes and the “daunting linguistic goals” were highlights of the presentation by Anne Kemper, coordinator of Lewiston Adult Education’s Adult Learning Center, and Joyce Walworth, the English instructor for Portland Adult Education. They discussed their work with refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers in Lewiston-Auburn and Portland.

Kemper and Walworth emphasized the underlying dynamics of teacher-student situations.

“Our students are here for serious reasons,” Walworth said. She reminded the audience that thousands of families came to Lewiston-Auburn and Portland in recent years, and in most cases, neither children nor their parents could speak English.

Objectives of English for Speakers of Other Languages programs are to equip adults with basic skills to communicate with employers, medical providers and landlords, as well as give parents the ability to advocate for their children.

“They carry a lot of stress with them into the classroom,” Kemper said. “A lot of things can interfere with their learning.”

The speakers also noted that these newcomers to America “have lived extremely interesting lives,” and they now find themselves in unfamiliar living situations where “the stakes are really high.”

Kemper said the English programs are offered at five L-A sites to several hundred adult learners. Many speak two or more languages. Somali and French represent the highest percentage of foreign languages among the adult learners of English, and most of them are from African countries. In Portland, there is a significant Iraqi population.

There are three 12-station computer labs available for L-A’s adult English learners. Kemper pointed out how important it is for learners to be able to tell prospective employers, “’Yes, I have computer skills.’”

She described several programs that are complementary to the English language classes. Among them are the New Mainers-Refugee Work Force Development Program, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Community Financial Literacy program, and a Cultivating Communities program that provides food for sale at farmers’ markets.

Walworth asked the audience to indicate how many of them spoke more than one language — and it was very few. Most of them had learned their second language in high school or college and not as an immediate necessity for living in a new country.

A lot of factors enter into the pressure on the adult learners, Walworth said.

“We are teaching them English in English,” she said. “They are displaced and they miss their homes. They lost their identity and their place in society as they knew it.” 

She said the teachers “wear a lot of hats.” They must see from the viewpoint of the learner and reduce anxiety for them, she said.

“We have to remember that the students are adults with much life experience,” Walworth said. “How they speak English is no reflection on their life experiences.”

Peter Ntarugen, who came from Rwanda, teaches the computer class for those learning English. With the help of two Bates College students who volunteer as English for Speakers of Other Languages instructors, he demonstrated the difficulty for both teacher and student to communicate.

Tanseem Syed, a native of Pakistan, presented the exercise in copying Arabic language symbols. She is a volunteer in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston.

Friday’s forum marked the end of this season’s programs. They will begin again in late summer.

Sponsors of the Great Falls Forum are Bates College, Lewiston Public Library and the Sun Journal.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.