Learning two languages, one at a time

Never used a pencil
Apolinar had never picked up a pencil before this class, and did not know how to spell his name.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

In a Minneapolis classroom, Apolinar closely examines the day's newspaper. The words have absolutely no meaning to him. But he's looking at a story with lots of pictures. They tell him it's about a town in his home of Morelos, Mexico. He's excited to tell his teacher and classmate what he sees.

Spanish newspaper
Katharine Malaga uses an English-language newspaper to teach Spanish literacy.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Apolinar is 33 and he's learning to read and write in Spanish. His class is being used for research purposes and all students have been granted anonymity. But Apolinar is letting us use his first name. He says it's hard to get by.

"It's really ugly to not know how to read and write in this country," says Apolinar. "You have to struggle more."

Apolinar's voice is shaky as he tells his story. He moved to Minnesota two years ago. Today, he works for a landscaping company as a gardener. He tears up when he says had to turn down a job promotion because he didn't even know how to spell his name. So he started looking for Spanish literacy classes.

These classes are hard to find. That's because the state and federal governments only give money to adult education programs taught in English. Apolinar found a volunteer tutor through Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES), a nonprofit organization serving the Latino community in the Twin Cities.

Teacher and student
Teacher Katharine Malaga along with Apolinar.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Apolinar says when he started taking these classes, he had never held a pencil. He didn't have a steady hand either. Now, he's writing his name. He never learned how as a child because his family needed him to work. They were worried about getting through the day and didn't think about the future.

"Yet, take a look at that future now," says Apolinar. "Here I am today embarrassed. Why? Because I have my own time card to clock in at work and I can't write my name on it. I have to find someone to do it for me, and to keep the secret that I don't know how to read and write."

Apolinar's story is common among the approximately 15,000 Spanish speakers taking English classes in the Twin Cities. Only three community organizations with language programs, including CLUES, have volunteers who teach Spanish literacy. These organizations have no jurisdiction over the classes, but they allow tutors to use their facilities.

This emphasis on English only is also echoed in today's immigration debate. Policymakers want to make English the official language or make learning English a requirement for citizenship. Some believe new immigrants will assimilate faster and be more successful in America if they know English. But Katharine Malaga, Apolinar's teacher, disagrees.

Barry Shaffer
Barry Shaffer is the state director of the Adult Basic Education program at the Minnesota Department of Education.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"If you read material, it says it's very beneficial to learn to read in your first language," says Malaga. "But if you talk to the people who are the English-only-in-the-U.S.A., they don't understand that. One of the reasons most of them, in my mind, don't understand that is because they are monolingual. They don't know the benefits of being bilingual."

Malaga has been teaching English and Spanish literacy classes at CLUES since 2003. She says there's a real need for Spanish literacy classes, but the people who need them are so disconnected from society, they don't how to find the few resources that are available to them.

Barry Shaffer, state director of the Adult Basic Education program at the Minnesota Department of Education, says these Spanish literacy classes don't exist because the money would have to come from the Adult Basic Education program.

The program has limited resources and there's a bigger demand for English instruction. So, the department only gives money to those programs. Shaffer says he's aware of the need and understands that learning Spanish first could be beneficial. But he says these students need to learn English to cope in society.

"We are not, in Minnesota, a very bilingual society here like in Texas or California," says Shaffer. "It's got to be more difficult to get even a low-paying job if you've got extreme low skills in your own native language as well as in English. So it really is essential for learners to get immersed in the English culture because without it in Minnesota you are really economically handicapped."

Shaffer says there are people who manage to learn English without literacy preparation in their native languages. Thirty-five percent of students with little or no literacy skills in the Adult Basic Education program moved on to the next level last year. It's not a high percentage, but it shows some success.

Still, some people, like Apolinar, feel more comfortable tackling literacy issues one language at a time. He took a big step and admitted he's illiterate. Now he's proud of the little progress he's made. Apolinar says it's beautiful to be learning. In a few months, he predicts he'll even be reading stories.

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