Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Libraries and ESL

An article in City Journal presents a vibrant picture of the Queens Library:

The Queens Library is that rare New York phenomenon: a government-funded social-uplift program that works. It succeeds by doing what it has done for over a century: giving New Yorkers with ambition (however modest or grand it may be) the tools they need for self-improvement.

It's an excellent article, with many wise things to say, but what I want to focus on is the need, largely unmet, to teach new immigrants English.

On the wall of my study, I have a certificate given to my grandfather for his proficiency in English. Instruction was given in the Columbus Public Schools, in cooperation with the Department of Labor. In those days, immigrants were required to learn English as a path to citizenship, and publicly funded instruction was provided.

My uncle Max was a little boy when his parents came to the US, and my mother was a toddler. He became a doctor, she a lawyer. What kind of outlook would they have had if they never learned English? If they had lived in some sort of self-imposed ghetto, and been taught in Yiddish? A pretty poor outlook, I believe.

From my experience in the library, people desperately want to learn English. We had a program where we instructed tutors and matched them to students. We could never get enough tutors. Potential students? They came in droves.

They came from Korea, Poland, Russia, Iran, Senegal, the Dominican Republic, and a lot of other places, but they all wanted to learn the language of their new country.

We tried to get grant money to start classes in ESL, but could not raise enough. Nobody gave a hoot. It was not a glamorous cause.

The beauty of ESL classes is that students who speak different languages must converse with other students in English. In some cases, this is the only English they ever hear.

The government funds so much crap, why couldn't they make ESL accessible for anyone who wants it, as they did in 1922, when my grandfather learned it?

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