Supermarkets are confusing. Bills are befuddling. Making doctor appointments can be a nightmare. For many with limited English skills, everyday life is a constant series of struggles. Even casual talk with strangers can lead to stress.
Saulan Heung, 65, came to America from Hong Kong 30 some years ago searching for more opportunities for her family. Along with those opportunities came daunting challenges for her and her husband, both non-English speakers.
Heung has been studying with tutors off and on for the three decades she has lived in the United States and is currently a student of Caitlin Jones, a volunteer tutor with the Read Up! adult literacy program at the Nevada County Library.
“Everything was hard for me,” Heung said of the beginning. “I’m not 100 percent understanding now,” Heung said of her English. “Now, it’s not a really big problem, but I wanted to talk better.”
Heung said that in addition to navigating the neighborhoods, markets and banking in her new country, she wanted to know what was going on in the world.
“I always say, ‘I’m nosy,’ ” she said. “If I don’t understand something in the news, I bring (it) up to the tutor. She’ll say the words and ask what they mean. If it’s really deep or hard, I ask about it. And keep asking.”
The county library began its literacy program in 1998 with grant funding from the California Library Literacy Service. The classes match volunteer tutors with students who seek help with reading, writing and math skills and are coached in confidential one-on-one sessions at no charge.
Alan Archer, director of Read Up!, said the program usually maintains about 65 students countywide. Sometimes they’ve fallen through the cracks at public school or been the victims of poverty or abuse and never caught up to grade level. Others come from foreign countries and never learned English.
“I don’t think public education is at fault so much as the family turmoil they’ve experienced,” he said. “Twenty or 25 percent have learning disabilities. Others have problems in the family that impacts them during their prime school years, affecting their ability to learn.”
“Things don’t go through their head,” Archer added. “Family turmoil plays a bigger part than anything. If they are in a family where the father or mother are at each other’s throat or there might be abuse, that’s very distracting. You can’t expect a second- or third-grader to just put that aside and study. Once a kid falls behind, he continues behind unless he is rescued by a teacher or a mentor or friend.”
Jones, who along with her work at Read Up! is on the board of the nonprofit Partners in English Language Learning (PiELL), which has been serving those studying English in Western Nevada County since 1985. She has been tutoring Heung for a year and a half.
Both Read Up! and PiELL work with students who are assessed for literacy skills before they are matched with a tutor. Students are sometimes referred to either organization if they are non-English speakers from another country, or if they are poised to take a GED test or citizenship classes. The curriculum varies based on their needs and personal goals.
“Many from our own country come to us with reading skills of a third- or fourth-grade level,” Archer said. “It leaves them unprepared to compete in society. They are at everybody’s mercy. They’re often afraid to leave the house. I find students become very ashamed if they meet that criteria. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tell strangers, ‘I can’t understand you!’”
“Developing a trusting relationship with a tutor is important to developing literacy skills,” he added.” The student has to trust that there will be no judgment. They need to feel comfortable that they can succeed.”
Often the student has experienced a lot of failures.
“Maybe school was always a struggle,” Archer said. “They may have low self-esteem. They may think everybody else understands this stuff. Then it gets more difficult and pretty soon they look at themselves in the mirror and say what am I doing here? Heck with it, I’ll drop out and get a job.”
“One thing that’s difficult for people understand, is if you don’t graduate from high school people think you’re either a goof off or stupid,” Archer said. “They don’t know what’s behind it. The family turmoil they’ve had and the impact that has had on their learning ability.”
“Intelligence has nothing to do with how many degrees you have,” Jones said. “Or how much education you have. If you don’t have a degree, that means nothing to me. Someone who has moved here with no English and no money, but has determination to succeed. That means something to me.”
For more information on Read Up!, call 530-470-2772. For more information on PiELL, call 530-265-2116.