Students Maryam Issa, Huwaida Hameed and Tekle Testay turn in an in-class writing exercise to their instructor, Dan Murphy, during an adult English language class at Douglass High School on April 4.

Nearly one in 10 Columbia residents speak foreign languages first

Community survey data reflect diversity of native tongues
Sunday, April 17, 2011 | 11:03 a.m. CDT; updated 4:55 p.m. CDT, Sunday, April 17, 2011

COLUMBIA — On weekday mornings, Douglass High School becomes a window to the world.

Adults from all corners of the the globe come to Douglass for English classes. They are from South Korea, China, Japan, Iraq, Turkey, Peru and other countries, and they speak languages including Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Turkish.

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Ask how long they’ve been in the United States, and they’ll give you specific answers: Eighth months. One year, four months. One year, six months.

Maryam Issa, who came to Columbia from Iraq, has been here about 17 months. She speaks primarily Arabic, but has been learning English since she arrived here. For a while, work prevented her from attending classes every day, though that has changed over the past two months, she said. She now goes every day.

“My dream is to speak English very well,” she said.

According to estimates in the the American Community Survey from 2005 to 2009, 9.5 percent of Columbia’s residents say they predominantly speak a language other than English. The survey provides annual data that used to come only once a decade from the U.S. Census long-form questionnaire.

Dan Murphy, one of the language instructors who works with Columbia Public Schools and teaches at the Adult Learning Center at Douglass, said there is an eclectic group of people from many different countries in Columbia, mostly because MU is here. He works with visiting scholars from South Korea, people from Latin America who have come here to work and refugees from Iraq, Burma and African countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Liberia.

There usually are about five different countries or languages represented in his classes, he said. That variety is actually helpful. In a mixed group, English is the one language the students have in common.

Susana Alvarez, a native Spanish-speaker from Peru, said she is in a class with people from South Korea, China, Algeria, Brazil, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So she gets practice with a lot of different accents. She hears differences in the way people from different parts of the country speak English — people from Atlanta, for example, are harder for her to understand, she said.

Murphy said one of the biggest challenges his students face is the lack of anyone to practice English with. Because they have limited English skills, it’s difficult to make American friends. Some can practice with American spouses, but others are limited to class time or trips to the store.

Hulya Yakan, who has been in Columbia for eight months and still speaks primarily Turkish, said she speaks English only when she is in class. She speaks Turkish at home, and nearly all her friends speak Turkish as well. When she goes out to the store, to the hospital or elsewhere, her English-speaking husband does the talking.

Murphy thinks Columbia residents are quite accommodating to people who speak other languages. Yakan agreed, saying people are helpful when she says she doesn’t understand English. They’ll talk more slowly, repeat things or write messages down for her.

And when she gets really stuck, she’s prepared. She carries an electronic Turkish-English translator with her all the time so that she can look up words when she needs to.

Huwaida Hameed, an Arabic-speaker from Iraq, said she understands English but struggles to speak it. People are friendly, though, she said. They’ll say hello to her and help her with the language when she needs it.

Murphy said students come in at various levels. Those who already have been educated in their native languages generally can work at a high level and learn more quickly, but those who aren't literate in their own language have to begin at the preliteracy level in English. Younger students learn faster, too, he said.

Of course, adults aren’t the only people in Columbia who speak other languages. Children who come from other countries with their families or whose parents don’t speak English need to learn the language, too.

There are 703 students in Columbia Public Schools' English Language Learners program, said Cindy Hutchinson, who works in the language office. It operates in 16 elementary schools, all the middle and junior high schools and two high schools.

The top languages children speak include Spanish, Korean, Somali, Arabic and Chinese, Hutchinson said. They come from countries such as South Korea, China, Mexico, Iraq and various African nations.

The program is strictly English, not bilingual, Hutchinson said. Classes are taught in English, and teachers are not required to know how to speak another language.

A lot of what the program does is help with parent communication, Hutchinson said. Many parents of children in the program are unable to speak English, but the school district wants to help them be involved in their children's education.

The district has interpreters in about 26 of the 38 languages its families speak, and teachers are given lists of interpreters so non-English-speaking families can communicate during parent-teacher conferences.

Hutchinson said the variety of languages in the district promotes diversity and acceptance in schools, and being around students from different cultures is an additional form of education. English Language Learners creates a partnership between schools and families, but it also helps students and teachers learn about other cultures and traditions.

“You learn so much from each other,” she said.

When Hutchinson worked at Blue Ridge Elementary, she and co-worker Rebecca Bevel-Smith applied for and received a Links to Learning grant that they used to build a collection of multicultural, bilingual books. The books often had one page in English, then another in Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese or another language. It gave non-English speaking children something to read and another tool for learning English, but Hutchinson said English-speaking children enjoyed seeing other languages, too.

“It’s a great education for all," she said.

Murphy thinks exposing people to other cultures helps prevent them from making assumptions about people from foreign countries. Although he said he has not seen a significant increase during the past few years in people who speak other languages, he said Columbia is becoming more diverse and will continue to do so.

With advances in communication and transportation, he said, “the world is getting to be a smaller place.”

That diversity, he said, makes life in Columbia more interesting.

“You can learn a lot more about the world from people who have been there than from a book,” he said.

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