April 02, 2020

Adult students in ESL class encouraged to immerse themselves in community

ORONO – Get out there!

That’s the homework assignment Orono Adult Education teacher Alessandra R.S. Cunha gives to students in her English as a Second Language class.

“I tell them to get out into the community – don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed,” Cunha said recently. “I want them to communicate with people – to get outside and really talk. Immersing yourself in the culture is the best way to learn any language.”

The seven students now enrolled in Cunha’s class are from Korea, China, Chile, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. They meet four times a week in Hannibal Hamlin Hall at the University of Maine.

Almost everyone in this semester’s class has studied English in their native countries and have spouses who are affiliated with the University of Maine.

“She’s got a little United Nations in there,” Mary Phillips, director of Orono Adult Education, said last week.

Besides teaching grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, Cunha said she aims to acquaint students with American culture and teach them skills such as how to leave a telephone message, shop for groceries, order prescriptions, use public transportation, accept invitations and behave at a restaurant.

“It’s everything that you know how to do in your culture, but not in other cultures,” said Cunha, 34. The instructor is a native of Brazil who moved here six years ago with her husband, an electrical engineering research professor at UM.

At one recent class the discussion involved how to rent an apartment.

“What are the questions we should ask? It’s important to know the number of rooms you want,” Cunha said to students who sat comfortably around a table, their dictionaries – both computers and books – within arm’s reach.

“Ask if there is a basement and if you will have a washing machine,” Angela Lemus-Orellana, 44, of Chile suggested. The most fluent of the group, the Old Town resident came to this country a year ago with her husband who is studying for his doctorate in wood engineering.

Sitting across from her was Noor Gehan, 54, of Pakistan, who lives in Orono. She has been in this country for about seven years but knows little English. Her husband works in a local store.

The only student wearing traditional garb – a filmy, coral-colored sari that added a bright spot of color to the scene – Gehan has never gone to school. But Cunha said the mother of six was determined to learn English and has one of her children drive her to class early so she and Cunha can go over basics such as the alphabet and colors.

Cunha herself knows firsthand what it’s like to live in another country where you don’t know the language.

“I’ve been there,” said the mother of two who spent three years in Montreal, learning both English and French.

With her bubbly personality, the teacher had no trouble drawing out her students. On this day, she asked them to introduce themselves and explain what brought them to the United States. With her help, the students told their stories.

Shuming Xu, 29, said he is a businessman from China who moved here last year so his wife could study forest resources at UM.

Learning English “is hard, but I can do it,” said Xu, an Old Town resident.

He and Lemus-Orellana recently discovered to their delight that their spouses share an office at the university. “It’s a small world,” Xu said.

OkJoo Kim, 45, of Orono moved from Korea about a month ago with her husband, a professor and visiting scholar in UM’s computer science department. Kim said that she studied English in school as a child, but soon forgot it because she had “no one to practice on.”

Conversing with Americans is a far cry from studying English in school, said Lemus-Orellana, an opera singer and a music professor at the University of Chile.

“It’s different when you speak with people because they speak so fast,” she said. “We need to ask them to speak slowly and then we can relax.”

Cunha said she encourages her students to “dive right in” and watch TV and movies, read newspapers and listen to the radio.

“They learn a lot of slang expressions that way, and then they ask me about them,” she said.

Learning about each other’s culture also has been an integral part of the class.

“When I bring up a subject, I always ask them first, ‘what is it like in your country?'” Cunha said.

Many former ESL participants have returned to their countries and then written letters saying how much the class has meant to them, said Phillips, the Orono Adult Education director.

Current students agreed that even though the semester has barely started, the class already has been a boon, bridging the gap between their country and the U.S. and helping them make new friends.

Gehan, the Pakistani student, happily summed it all up:

“Good school. Good people. Good teacher.”

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