Breaking down barriers

Lyndale neighborhood group launches English classes for Latino and Somali residents

 LYNDALE — On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Somalis, Latinos and native English speakers gather around the same table at Zion Lutheran Church. They laugh together and do their best to converse in English.

“How often do you see this?” said Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA) Executive Director Mark Hinds, referring to the diverse set of people gathered downstairs one recent Thursday for the purpose of English-language education.

In November, LNA launched a free, twice-weekly English as a second language (ESL) class, the latest in a series of efforts meant to engage and empower Lyndale’s large Latino and Somali populations.

A $10,000 grant from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the generosity of about a half-dozen volunteers got the class off the ground. Roughly two dozen Latinos and Somalis, most of them women, have already registered, with free childcare provided upstairs during classes.

Although that $10,000 grant has pretty much been used up, Hinds said he’s confident the neighborhood “is on the path toward sustainable funding” with help from Minnesota’s Adult Basic Education program.

In a polarized political environment, helping non-native adults communicate in English is something just about everyone can support, Hinds suggested.

“No matter where you are on the political spectrum, helping people learn English is a pretty non-partisan issue,” he said.

Funding aside, Hinds said the ESL class “is a program we’re really committed to as a neighborhood,” adding that he plans for LNA to offer the class indefinitely.

A focus on diversity

According to the recently released Minnesota Compass study of Minneapolis neighborhoods, Lyndale is one of the most diverse areas in the city.

As of last year, 47 percent of Lyndale’s population identified as white, compared to just over 60 percent of Minneapolis as a whole. Twenty-four percent of Lyndale’s residents were Hispanic or Latino, with 21 percent identifying as black or African American.

Nearly 30 percent of Lyndale’s population spoke a language other than English at home, compared to 19 percent citywide.

Under the leadership of Hinds, LNA has made engaging with Lyndale’s minority communities a top priority. During the past year alone, LNA utilized its Spanish-speaking staff to launch a Latina leadership program and began offering free monthly legal consultations. The neighborhood is currently hiring a Somali community organizer and hopes to soon introduce a Somali leadership program as well.

Hinds said neighborhood Somalis and Latinos report that the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges living in Minneapolis — an observation seconded by some of the Latina students in the ESL class.

Blanca Crespo Hernandez has lived in the United States for 12 years but is just now making her first concerted effort to learn English.

She takes care of Spanish-speaking seniors for work. Since she’s busy and hasn’t needed English professionally or at home, learning the language has remained on the back-burner until now.

Hernandez said she relies on her children for translation at home or when out in the community, but hopes the ESL class will help her become more self-reliant.

Through a translator, she said English “is important for just about everything — going to school conferences, talking to your kids — it’s important in all aspects of life.”

Other Latina students said practical concerns were also their primary motivation for taking the ESL class.

Lorenia Ortiz said “when we go to the store, look at the price and aren’t sure how much we need to pay when we take out our money, we want to know what the price is.”

Some students, however, cited principled motivations.

Asked why learning English is important to her, Maria Dolores Cruz said, “we’re all here in this country, living with people who speak English — why wouldn’t we learn it too?”

Bringing people together

Erica Fulton has been teaching ESL for eight years.

During a recent visit, she was teaching her students about proper nouns and to properly use “there,” “their” and “they’re.”

Fulton said all the lessons “are very life-skill based,” with each class focusing on topics ranging from filling out forms to communicating in a school environment.

Teaching adults English involves explaining distinctions native speakers rarely think about, like the difference between a book being “on a shelf” or “on top of” a shelf.

An added difficulty is that many of Fulton’s students had no formal education in their native tongues.

“Many have never studied the rules of their own language, let alone English,” Fulton said. “As an adult you have to be presented with the rules and the exceptions, but when you learn your own language, you just internalize them.”

And, of course, the rules and exceptions of English seem particularly capricious and difficult to learn. For instance, why does I always come before E except after C?

Hernandez admitted that the more she learns, the more frustrating English can be.

“It’s one thing to write, another to pronounce,” she said. “It’s different — very different.”

And yet, the students are making progress. A month ago, many of the folks gathered together for the ESL class had no common language with which to communicate. And while their interactions remain limited by their relative lack of proficiency, they’ve come far enough where they can share a bit of conversation and a laugh.

“This is all about bringing people together,” Hinds said.