New English Speakers Find Home At West U. Baptist

November 2, 2009

On the third floor of West University Baptist Church, the music of a piano and choir playing gospel music blends with the interesting syllables spoken by a multitude of foreign accents.

China, Colombia, India, Switzerland — the exotic tongues wrap themselves around the English language, and except for the thick accents and occasional grammar mistakes, the conversations are entirely familiar.

Name tags await students at the registration table.

Name tags await students at the registration table.

“You came for the class? First day this is?” One woman asks while excitedly welcoming a newcomer into the group. Her smile nearly reaches both ears.

Another group listens as Yingbo Dai describes a traffic jam earlier that day — Cars waited until the last minute to merge, and then one vehicle nearly hit him when it abruptly cut him off. Hearty laughs of understanding circle the table.

“For the first time in our lives, we can communicate with other people in English,” said Dai, a Chinese visiting scholar to the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

The group gathers each Wednesday to participate in English as a Second Language classes that the International Friendship Program of West U. Baptist offers them free of charge.

The church has offered the program for five years, and typically serves 25 to 30 students. But this year, a whopping 57 students registered, most of them from the medical center or Rice University.

“The church is in the business of meeting people’s needs,” said Kathleen Yarborough, director of the International Friendship program. “This is something we see as a need in this community.”

There is a strict rule in these ESL classes: Only English is allowed, in order to mimic how children first learn languages. About 10 church members volunteer their time as teachers, and the students are divided into four groups based on their fluency in the language.

Level one students practice their vocabulary with teacher Fran Klepfer.

Level one students practice their vocabulary with teacher Fran Klepfer.

In a level one class, teacher Fran Klepfer holds up pictures of vegetables for her two students to identify.

“Do you remember what this is?” Klepfer asks.

“Squash … uh … butter … uh … butternut squash!” answers one student.

“Good! Very good!” Klepfer exclaims before moving on to the next picture.

Teachers try to target their lesson plans to meet the needs of students. For example, if most students are mothers, teachers will spend a lot of time on the type of conversations they have with their children’s school teachers.

“We did the vegetables because in an earlier class, we had a woman who worked in a kitchen,” Klepfer said. “She spoke English muy poquito.”

Upstairs in a level 4 class, students sit together in pairs chatting about their hobbies. They are fluent English speakers who mainly come to the ESL classes to practice their conversation skills and ask questions without fearing judgement if they make mistakes.

“It’s a safe place,” Yarborough said. “You can ask a question you can’t ask your boss.”

All of the students in the level four class are fully engaged in their conversations, including Moto and Ana, who lean towards each other with locked eyes and huge smiles while they talk about Ana’s hobby. She baked a marble pound cake that was “terrible” and her brownies didn’t come out much better.

Level four students talk fluently about their hobbies.

Level four students talk fluently about their hobbies.

“The cover was really hard, I couldn’t chew it,” Ana said. “I threw it away, okay?”

Moto laughs and reminds Ana it’s very important to follow the recipe and also bake brownies at the right time and temperature.

This easy camaraderie is a common occurrence during the fall and spring ESL classes, Yarborough said. In addition to normal class time, teachers and students enjoy social gatherings at holiday parties, music concerts and the rodeo.

“We teach English, but we make friends,” she said. By the end of the semester, Yarborough said she sees big differences in the students.

“They are more confident. They know how to do small talk. I perceive they have bigger smiles,” Yarborough said. “I think the teachers get as much or more than the students do.”

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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