Celebration in English
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 16, 2004

Students share food, language

Cary Aspinwall

It's the day of the last conversation class for the Southeast Regional Library's English as a Second Language group, and the room has a fragrance of homemade empanadas and dumplings. Latin American music fills the room.

This final Saturday class of the year is sharing day, a potluck to celebrate the progress the group has made speaking everyday English by attending free classes at the library in Gilbert.

Students have brought dishes from their home countries, and some native music or games for the group to learn.

But before they eat, they have one last practice lesson from instructor Terry Doepken - a conversation scavenger hunt that requires her students to circulate and find someone who owns such things as a black cat, debit card, a pickup truck or has a brother.

"The noisier this room gets, the more successful I think we've been," Doepken said, smiling.

Soon, she's surrounded by students who've discovered that she's the mystery owner of a black cat in the group. Doepken keeps their conversation skills going.

"Did you bring some Cambodian food?" she asks Siboren Hok, a student from Chandler.

Rice flour dumplings in sugar water sauce, a traditional Cambodian treat, Hok says.

"This is the first time I make it," Hok said excitedly.

The library hosts this 10-week English as a Second Language conversation group twice a year to make the transition easier for East Valley newcomers from other countries. The group focuses on developing vocabulary and practical skills, such as phone etiquette and using the phone book.

The program was started by literacy volunteers who noticed that their ESL students needed practice in using the English they were learning because many would speak only their native language at home.

Doepken's students hail from all over the globe, including Colombia, Mexico, Cambodia, Korea, China, El Salvador and Guatemala.

According to the 2000 census, 6 percent of Gilbert's population is foreign-born.

The students have become friends and greet each other with questions about family and children. English is their new link, a common bond.

Betty Ohep has lived in Mesa for almost two years since moving from Venezuela, but she has been coming to Doepken's classes for several weeks and is already making progress.

"So much - my boss can already tell," she said.

Before breaking into the food, Doepken gives the group a mandate until the next sessions begin in January: practice, practice, practice.

"You keep talking and you'll be even better," she assured them.

Magaly Orozco moved to Mesa from Mexico three years ago. But last year, she decided she wanted to be able to speak English better.

"This place makes us push ourselves to study and continue," she said. "Terry is not like a teacher - she's like a friend."

Cecilia Perez, who moved to Gilbert from Colombia about one year ago, agrees.

"Terry is my best pal," she said. "She is our friend, our mom, our teacher."

Perez, like many of Doepken's students, can read and write fairly well in English, but speaking it is much harder.

Over arroz con leche, Asian dumplings, empanadas, bunuelos, and a bevy of other international treats, they laugh and try to keep the conversation going.

Orozco makes a joke in English about Doepken's "guess-the-number-of-pennies-in-the-jar" game. The winner gets to keep the jar of money.

"Hey, Terry. Why you don't put quarters in there?" she teased.

Orozco wants to improve her English so she can get her cosmetology license and work. She had a license in Mexico, but here she must start over. And all the classes are in English.

"It's been hard. Sometimes you get tired and discouraged," she said. "But you have to continue because you love your career."

Plates cleaned, some of the group starts salsa dancing. Soon, the entire class forms a conga line.

Volunteer Bev Freese smiles as she watches her students dance around the room.

"One student told me, 'I come here because I learn so many other things besides English,' " she said.