This reporting project focuses on how immigrants and refugees find a voice in a place where the dominant language is not their own.
The stories reveal the obstacles these New Americans must overcome as they seek jobs, health care or education or when they interact with law enforcement or try to maintain their culture.
The stories look at those who learn a new language but also those who help them learn — the teachers, the tutors, the interpreters.
This project was produced in the Spring 2019 semester by students in the Nebraska Mosaic course, a capstone for journalism majors in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
For more stories about refugees and immigrants in Nebraska, see the Nebraska Mosaic website.
We welcome your comments! Please share your thoughts or contact us.
From the outside looking in, Total Manufacturing Company seems like any other metal manufacturing plant. Workers walk around with safety glasses on the factory floor, sparks fly off welders while others stand before machines with a close eye to the screens.
So, what’s different about TMCO? Simple: 40 percent of those 200 employees hail from 18 different countries, many of whom once fell under refugee status. Understanding why they make up so much of the labor force isn’t too difficult to understand either, according to TMCO founder Roland Temme.
For many refugees, the process of resettlement involved fleeing from the threat of death to a new country where their native language isn’t spoken, and their education and qualifications mean little to American employers.
“The hardest thing for refugees is finding a job. It’s the single hardest thing. The majority end up in certain industries like meatpacking,” Temme said.
Integration is something Temme has worked to address since he hired his first refugee employee, a former South Vietnamese Army soldier during the Vietnam War, in 1986.
For many of TMCO’s entry-level positions, the work only requires being able to work with your hands, the training is elementary and English isn’t required in the beginning, according to Temme.
“We’ve got a pretty ideal situation,” he said.
But it goes deeper than that. TMCO also offers free English classes to its employees, who are taught on the clock and paid for their time.
“It’s so important for them so that they can be involved in the community and it’s important for us so our communication can be better,” said TMCO president Anwar Rida.
With an English education comes new employment opportunities. Refugee employees frequently find promotions after learning English, and TMCO often pays for their job training for work with heavier and more complex machinery.
Former Myanmar refugee Po Shi spoke of his promotion process after starting in the company. After working as a meat cutter in a meatpacking plant, he said he reached a point where he couldn’t bear the mind-numbing work and the isolation that resulted from not being able to speak English.
“It was really difficult, especially the language. It’s hard to communicate with people,” he said. “Over there you can work hard and do the job, but you’re not going to be successful or move up. Cutting meat is very simple, you’re not going to learn anything.”
After being recommended to TMCO by a friend, Shi found work in 2012 offloading parts. Now, Shi finishes and details projects with a laser.
“TMCO is a really great company. The way we work and how we do our job is way different than when I worked in meat cutting,” he said. “It’s a good career.”
Taking chances and providing a wealth of opportunity for refugee workers is part of TMCO’s success as a local employer, according to Temme, himself the son of a first-generation German immigrant.
“When I listen to refugee stories from people who work here, I fully understand how important this job is to them,” he said. “Given the opportunity to work, they will work harder than the majority of the people. They’re also willing to learn if that opportunity is presented to them.”
Temme points to Rida as the living embodiment of TMCO’s goal to provide opportunity for their refugee employees. Rida has been with the company 18 years and is now its president.
Back in the mid-1980s, Rida was every parent’s dream. With a degree from Damascus Law School, one of the oldest and most reputable universities in the Arab world, Rida was educated, handsome and young.
“I studied international relations; it was very interesting,” he said. “I had a few ideas for what I wanted to do; I was very excited.”
But Rida’s ideas weren’t meant to be. Since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-80s, Rida and his family had been on the move. As former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sought to suppress the Shi’a and Kurdish revolutionary movements, Rida, his parents and eight siblings were forced out of Iraq into Iran with nothing.
But compared to their other family members, Rida’s immediate family was lucky. The Hussein regime imprisoned and murdered four of Rida’s relatives. Seeking new refuge in Syria was fruitless, and Rida and his family saw the writing on the wall as Hafez al-Assad’s health began to fail.
After relocating to the United States, Rida struggled to find work until falling in with TMCO in Lincoln in 2001. Then, as it has always been, Rida said he was attracted to the company’s reputation as a diverse work environment with plenty of opportunity for career growth.
“In our company, our door is open for anyone,” Rida said. “It’s not just about hiring them. We look for what they’re looking for, what they need, and our job is to give them the support and help that they need to be a part of this community.”
Khasro Karin is the newest refugee hired at TMCO. After living in Sweden after the uprisings near his home in Northern Iraq in the early 1990s, Karin relocated to Nebraska to reunite with his family. After meeting Rida during while he was working at Home Depot, Karin now works cutting sheet metal with lasers and is working toward a promotion.
“It’s great working here. It’s a big family, big friendships. I spend 10 to 12 hours with these guys,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t spend so much time with my own family because this is the family. I like what I do and it’s a new opportunity it’s great.”
TMCO’s tradition and commitment to Lincoln’s refugee labor base will continue because of its reputation, Rida said.
“A person working in the company will very happy because we treated him as family. That person is going to talk about the company, tell people that we treat him really well and it builds on our reputation,” he said.
“People come out looking for jobs, and if they fit in the job, then we hire them. If not, then we wish them the best. It’s not about hiring refugees here; it’s just our reputation. We take care of people who work for us, refugee or non-refugee, it doesn’t matter.”
Language and health care
Barriers more than an inconvenience
In clinics throughout Lincoln, translation difficulties can be as much of a routine as throat swabs and chart reads.
Sometimes those communication snags can produce huge consequences for the non-English speakers that struggle to be understood in healthcare facilities.
Kristin Gall has heard of patients misunderstanding medicine instructions to administer it orally when it was supposed to be eye drops, and remembered when health care providers misinterpreted a woman and gave her permanent, instead of temporary, birth control.
The program health specialist and refugee health coordinator for Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services also recalled her own experiences as a nurse trying to work through language barriers.
”I did my best but I don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “It was really hard to give the best care, and it is really hard when you’re trying to do your job as a professional without speaking their language.”
Christa Yoakum, a coordinator for the Nebraska is Home program in Nebraska Appleseed’s Immigrants and Communities department, said she can never forget when a woman in critical condition had to be life flighted into Lincoln with only her young daughter to translate for her.
“How terrified that child must have been,” she said. “She was only 6 years old, I can’t imagine how traumatic that would have been.”
Kathy Hobelheinrich, a long-time Lincoln nurse who’s since transitioned to consultant work, said language can become a liability when healthcare professionals and their patients are unable to work through barriers or find proper resources.
Although Yoakum said great strides have been made to provide language resources to the 11.5 percent of Lincoln households that speak languages other than English, she admitted more improvement can be done.
An annual survey from the American Hospital Association shows the need for continued progress. The 2013 report showed that one-third of American hospitals fail to provide adequate language resources, and specifically mentioned that facilities in Lexington, Nebraska fall into the gaps.
Enrica Ardemangi is the president of the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care, and said she’s seen how ignorance around federal mandates can lead healthcare facilities to fail their non-English speaking patients.
Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all healthcare facilities that receive federal funds must provide interpreters with 40 hours of training, encourage patients to not use family or friends as interpreters and prohibit the use of minors as interpreters.
As a longtime advocate for responsible medical interpretation, Ardemangi’s seen how interpreters can make a big difference for non-English speaking patients. She can spend as long as 12 stressful hours with one patient, to provide cultural and linguistic translation before, during, and after procedures.
“We spend more time with them than their family does,” she said. “We develop this sense of trust. We are the way that they communicate with their provider; they trust us and we try to instill this sense of calm and assurance.”
Maysoon Shaheen has interpreted in Lincoln’s healthcare facilities since 2002, and said she’s seen how the providers have progressed over the years and the challenges they still face.
The facilities are following the mandates of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in her experience. Shaheen recently tried to make an appointment for her 70-year-old, non-English speaking mother, and said she’d be the interpreter. Even as a certified, professional translator, the hospital turned her away.
“They refused,” she said. “I was really frustrated, but they said I couldn’t do it and they would find someone else since I was her daughter.”
Shaheen said she still sees ways that healthcare can better provide for its non-English speaking patients beyond just adhering to the rules. Although she sees how technology has made translation more accessible and cheaper, she said computers and phone calls can come between an interpreter and their clients.
“Healthcare in Lincoln uses a lot of technology, and many people complain about that,” she said. “They need to think about cultural things, because not all things can be resolved over the phone. Not everything can be known over the phone — I can miss facial expressions, body language.”
Her translation frequently turns from linguistic to cultural. She said she often reminds doctors of Islam’s cultural requirement that wives get their husband’s permission before making big decisions. She’s also seen how that cultural understanding and connection gets cut short by doctors’ busy schedules.
“You don’t find a lot of providers who have the time to consider culture and give patients the time to make those decisions,” she said.
Gall said she’s seen how Lincoln patients relax when they have interpreters to give them the confidence that their cultural and linguistic needs will be met.
“The warmness, the relief, the entire attitude change that you see in someone is just a completely different vibe once they can connect with someone and talk to them,” she said.
Gall didn’t have that when she found herself unable to be understood with an earache in a Spanish-speaking Florida hospital, which made the danger of improper language resources in healthcare facilities more visceral for her.
”It was scary because I was in a lot of pain and I wasn’t at home,” she said. “If you put yourself in their shoes, you can see how scary that is. And that’s something our refugees have to ask everyday — is there going to be someone that can understand me?”
Improper translation in hospitals constitutes a huge liability, but Gall acknowledged how hard it can be for facilities to provide proper resources.
She said many female patients want female interpreters, which aren’t always available. Refugees or immigrants might have different concepts on the flexibility of time, which can run up the hospital’s bill when it’s providing interpreters that charge $30 an hour. The many dialects and tribal languages also present problems, especially with Lincoln’s Sudanese and Burmese populations.
“I was trying to take care of a Sudanese family, so I called up the translation line and got the Sudanese interpreter on the phone, but it was the wrong dialect,” Gall said. “And you’re just like, ‘What do I do now?’”
Shaheen has waded through the complexities of dialects, accents and language concepts. As an Iraqi-Arabic speaker, said she typically refuses Moroccan cases and had to call her mom several times for clarification when she translated for a Sudanese patient.
“He had had a lot of interpreter problems and many interpreters refused his assignment,” she said. “So I wanted to take on that challenge, and it was successful.”
Yoakum added that community politics can hinder interpretation. She’s seen cases where translators decline to help because the community may see their translation as taking a side in issues like domestic violence cases. Other times, patients may refuse translation because they don’t want to share details of their personal life with community elders or leaders.
Shaheen remembered when a couple refused her help because of her status in the community. The husband opted to translate for his wife — who had a tubal pregnancy and needed an ovary removed — but misinterpreted and told his wife the doctor would be removing her kidney.
“They were lucky because I was calling the woman to see if she needed anything, and she was frustrated because she was like ‘I don’t have any problems with my urine system, why would they remove one of my kidneys?’” she said. “I contacted the doctor and then the doctor forced them to have an interpreter. This type of thing puts the patients at very high risks.”
Even with the challenges and gaps in resources, Yoakum believes in Lincoln’s progress and its commitment to more improvement.
“Even when there are a lot of things that are divisive, people are much more sensitive to helping neighbors,” she said. “Caregivers care about their patients and want them to get good care.”
Shaheen said a connection between caregivers and patients can spark a commitment to the community. She’s translated for patients who have since learned English and now provide healthcare interpretation services themselves.
“When they feel like the hospital, or doctor’s office, provides that interpretation to strengthen that communication and make that interaction a strong relationship, patients feel like they belong and they want to develop their skills and their place.”
Language and the schools
Educating Lincoln's diverse population
Lincoln Public Schools is home to students from 152 different countries. That’s 78 percent of the world’s nations represented in the school district of Nebraska’s capital city.
While many of those countries have as few as a single student in the system, the numbers still speak to the community’s diversity.
Lincoln’s status as a refugee resettlement city and its relatively low cost of living make it a popular destination for new Americans. These immigrants and refugees often have children, so public schools are challenged to find ways to accommodate the huge variety of languages and cultures through its English Language Learner (ELL) program, an aspect of education a lot of people are unfamiliar with.
“I think there are a lot of people in Lincoln who aren’t aware of some of the populations that live in our community,” said Kelley Veselinov, the ELL assessment specialist for LPS. “People are still fairly surprised that Lincoln is as big of a resettlement hub as it is in the United States,”
Lincoln’s ELL program teaches English to these students, but it also helps them navigate the American school system and learn about American culture.
Lancaster County is one of only four counties in Nebraska that has at least 1,000 ELL students, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Lancaster and Douglas County schools have the widest variety of languages.
While 70 percent of Nebraska’s ELL students speak Spanish as their primary language, the next-largest category includes all other languages at 12 percent. This illustrates the sheer volume of languages spoken in Lincoln and Omaha public schools.
Eight percent of Lincoln Public Schools students are English Language Learners, or about 3,400 of the district’s 42,000 students That’s far below Omaha’s 18 percent, but it is still a notable statistic given that Omaha’s metro population is nearly three times the size of Lincoln’s.
The first job of the LPS ELL program is to identify which students need assistance with English. The State of Nebraska requires a three-question survey for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade, who are new to the district:
· What is the student’s first language?
· What is the language the student uses most often?
· What is the language used at home regardless of what language the student speaks?
If the student answers with a language other than English to any one of these questions, they are sent to assessment at the ELL Welcome Center, located at Park Middle School.
Veselinov oversees the testing, which includes reading, math and a section where the student is told to write as much as they can in English. Students who test into Level 1, the lowest level of English, are done in about 10 minutes. Students who know more can take up to 90 minutes.
The most important factor in determining how a student tests and where they will land in the ELL program is what kind of schooling they have had in their home country, said Laura Salem, ELL program supervisor.
“As a secondary student, if you come in at age 14 and you haven’t been in school since you were nine in your home country, you have a pretty big gap in your schooling,” she said. “So when you get into ninth grade, there are still some skills that you need to develop just in general as a student learner. That might take you a little longer to get to that four-year, on-time graduation.”
Veselinov said the quality of previous education, not just the amount, is important. She recently tested a group of new Vietnamese students who came in with extensive education, but it simply didn’t translate to the American school system.
“I had a high school student who had had English from third through tenth grade, but is still testing in at beginning level because that instruction is going to look different in her home country than it would here,” she said. “And then you have others that come in and they don’t even qualify. They test out. It really can vary.”
Students who don’t test out are recommended for the ELL program, but it is ultimately up to the parents to decide whether or not to place their kids in the system. Some would rather not have specialized ELL teachers instructing them. For some parents, the ELL curriculum falls outside of the traditional education they want their kids to experience. But Veselinov said she always encourages families to go the ELL route if their children qualify.
Students can face rough transitions into the ELL program, so the district provides support in the form of bilingual liaisons. These liaisons are part of the circle of communication between the district, the families, and the student. LPS employs 25 of them, most of whom speak Spanish, Arabic and Kurdish, three of the most dominant second-language groups among LPS students. There are also Vietnamese, Russian, Nuer and Karen-speaking liaisons.
These liaisons help with translation and paperwork in the assessment process and continue to act as cultural brokers once students are in the program. They are especially valuable for parent-teacher conferences.
The majority of Nebraska ELL students are elementary-age, and the number in each successive grade gradually declines until middle school, and then slightly increases for high school students. The program is most effective with younger learners who are better able to adapt to life in the United States and learn the language faster.
Students are allowed to be in high school until age 21, but the educational objective changes for older students.
“The conversation we might have with them is different in terms of what their goals are,” Salem said. “We want to just focus on learning language, since it’s going to be harder to get all the language and all the credits in the short time.”
The program itself receives federal Title III funding, but the ELL teachers are paid for with district funds. That means it’s up to LPS to decide to use as many resources as it does on ELL: Over $1.8 million of the LPS 2017-2018 annual budget.
That’s one reason why LPS has started making an effort to get the word out. If nearly one of every 10 students, plus a proportional number of teachers, is in the ELL program, the community whose taxes support them should know.
Salem occasionally helps host events and takes on speaking engagements with parents and retired teachers to help spread the word.
“I think people have somewhat an idea about what that is, but I don’t think they understand all of it,” she said. “So as much as we can share about what it is and who are students are, so that when they go out and talk to their friends, they can share information and kind of spread it out a little more.”
Salem had her first teaching practicum in an ELL classroom at Park before it changed from an elementary to a middle school. She moved to elementary education and special education for much of her career before deciding to get back into ELL on the advice of a colleague.
Now, years later as the program, she thinks her career has come full circle with the ELL Welcome Center now located in the same building where she started her journey in education.
“I’ve always really loved working with diverse learners,” she said. “So as a special ed teacher, I knew I was working with students that needed extra support and they needed someone to kind of champion for them. Being an ELL teacher was very much in line with the same kinds of things I thought about when I was a special ed teacher.”
Veselinov’s journey to helping run the program was also indirect. She taught English for adults at Lincoln’s Catholic Social Services before spending time teaching in Korea and Macedonia. She’s had her position at LPS since 2009.
Now, Veselinov feels like she is working where she belongs.
“I’ve always had a passion for working with immigrant and refugee populations,” she said. “The students are wonderful.”
Language and the law
Police face communication challenges
Lincoln police say they are increasingly challenged to serve people from non-English speaking backgrounds whose culture and language don’t match those of their line officers.
While LPD has several officers who are bilingual and generally has someone on duty for Spanish translation, there is a need for more bilingual staff representing other languages, said LPD spokeswoman Angela Sands, adding that the department also lacks in diversity
“We have a black female officer, a Mexican female, someone who speaks Kurdish but it’s only one,” she said.
“Creative problem solving” is how Lincoln police victim assistance manager Elizabeth McQueen describes the department’s protocol for communicating with non-English speakers.
McQueen, who facilitates and advocates for the needs of crime victims, said on-duty bilingual personnel is usually available to provide quick language assistance in Spanish but there is not a full-time employee assigned to this matter.
Former LPD interpreter Erica Dawn says she used to work full-time in the Family Crisis Unit, where she interpreted the interviews of victims held at the LPD. She would also get calls from officers who needed translations in car accidents or traffic control.
“What initially surprised me is that there was not a system in place. There was not a protocol established for law enforcement to contact me,” said Dawn, whose grant-funded position was eliminated in 2009.
Sands explained the LPD hired grant-funded bilingual employees whose positions remained as long as the grant lasted.
The LPD currently relies on over-the-phone translation services and civilian interpreters but these programs have become insufficient to please the city’s growing diverse population, McQueen said.
“We have a list of interpreters we call when police staff is not available or unable to translate but most of them have full-time jobs and often times they don’t get here soon enough,” she said. “I’ve had people with three or four kids who had to wait here for four hours for an interpreter.”
Max Graves, director of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance in Lincoln, says there is a growing need for more bilingual resources in the different law enforcement agencies.
He cited the case of a domestic sexual assault victim from Mexico who was arrested and jailed because the police thought she was being uncooperative. When her partner was found guilty of kidnapping and sexual assault, the police dropped charges against her but she remained in jail for two weeks.
“I went to talk to her and asked her, ‘Why are you still here if charges were dropped?’” he said. “She simply said she had not been able to talk to anyone in the county jail.”
Jail staff uses the language line or over-the-phone translation service to answer questions about medical conditions and special needs of non-English speaking inmates, but inmates would need to contact their attorneys if they needed further language assistance, said Brenda Fisher, programs director at the Lancaster County Department of Corrections.
“Unless they speak a pretty rare language, we would be able to use the phone line and there can be an answer to those immediate questions,” she said, “It allows them to have a conversation with the assistance of a human translator on the phone.”
Yet, Graves said meeting obligations related to helping people with police questioning, navigating the prison system or requesting language assistance adds yet another layer of complexity.
He noted that the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance has seen cases in which there were discrepancies in police reports and statements made by immigrant women who were victims of sexual violence.
“We saw the police took notes and sometimes there was just a world of difference,” he said. “Sometimes they will call themselves bilingual but they don’t speak Spanish well, just pretty basic street language.”
Salvador Ruiz, 42, who is originally from El Salvador, recalls the time he was pulled over by a Lincoln police officer.
McQueen said language and cultural barriers prevent law enforcement from functioning as well as it could. Yet, in a city where the list of languages spoken is 48 and growing, employing a police staff who speak each one is not feasible.
“I feel terrible when we cannot communicate,” she said. “Even if they are fluent in Spanish they (police) are not fluent in legal terms.”
Sands explains that officers learn an emergency command in Spanish and are trained to get comfortable with stress and fear, anytime there is a language barrier it makes it harder to communicate
“When there is an emergency situation, it gets more challenging,” she said. “You need people to comply with you but sometimes they don’t follow instructions because they don’t understand what you are asking for.”
There also are cases in which the interpreter speaks the language but not the dialect, McQueen noted.
“It’s so hard when we realize we cannot help somebody because they speak a very unusual language,” she said. “It’s one of those things I don’t even know where to begin to make it better.”
Lincoln law enforcement agencies try to build a relationship with cultural centers so when things come up they already have people there that they can trust, McQueen said.
During the time Dawn worked at the LPD, she, along with El Centro De Las Americas, “twisted the system around,” she said, so that instead of a victim calling the police, he or she would call El Centro, whose staff would set up an interview with Dawn and the police.
“It says a lot about the system that we had to create this ‘little system’ to facilitate communication,” she said.
Sands believes working with community centers is a good way to let the community know what the LPD is striving to become.
“We are building that trust to get them to apply here,” she said. “We need people from their communities to work with us.”
Diversity in hiring is the biggest challenge that the LPD needs to overcome in order to represent the community it serves, Sands said.
“The more we represent, the more we serve and the stronger our relationship will be with the community.”
Language and culture
Exploring the bonds and connections
There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken around the world and each language connects people to their culture.
Language and culture are so interconnected that if language is ever lost, often culture is too.
That conundrum is something that two University of Nebraska-Lincoln language scholars — Theresa Catalano and Ted Hamann — contemplate and study.
As immigrants come to America it is essential that they learn the English language. Adults attend language classes or pick it up as they go along while children learn language at school. There, they may come to believe their first language is devalued, which might turn them away from their home culture, said Catalano, associate professor of second language education and applied linguistics.
“When immigrants come to America all they see is that people should learn English, and that their language represents bad people, ideas, and negative comments about the people who speak the language,” she said. “Children see their language is devalued in society and when a language is devalued; it makes that person feel devalued,”
When children come to America and learn academic English, they begin to stray from their traditions they grew up knowing, Hamann said. Their home traditions begin to shift because of the influence the American culture.
For example, the vocabulary of a student growing up in a Spanish-speaking household is often strong in Spanish terminology about religion and family relationships, but their academic vocabulary in English is stronger because that is what gets reinforced at school.
As English learners gain more knowledge of the English language they could end up losing their cultural connection to their first language, said Hamann, a professor in Department of Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education.
“The first generation needs its language because that’s what it has,” he said. “The second generation tolerates the first language because it is a way of communicating with the first generation, but they largely lose it. The third generation resents the fact that the second generation didn’t teach them the original language because the third generation feels a sense of loss.”
This shows the connection between language and culture because ultimately the third generation could lose the ability to communicate with the first generation. So, for example, grandchildren might not be able to understand what their grandparent’s life and home were like before they came to America.
“If someone can’t connect with their family because they can’t speak the same language, that person can lose generational ties,” Catalano said.
As people learn new languages it is still important to for them to hang onto their first language, Catalano said, because it helps people think of who they are and where they come from. People are much more connected to their culture when they are connected to their first language.
Language is the way people bond to each other, so if a language is lost then the culture disappears because connections won’t be there, Hamann said.
“Just because you lose your first language doesn’t mean you can’t use a new language to make a new series of connections,” he said. “However, something you had is gone, even if you built something new.”
The young daughter of a Karen refugee sat in a corner of the Asian Community and Cultural Center as her father drummed out a traditional rhythm that reached back hundreds of years and spanned to their home country of Myanmar.
Rebecca Reinhardt, the center’s cultural programs coordinator, recalled several dancers, all around the same age as the girl, swaying across the room to the drum beat with their colorful homemade costumes shimmering.
According to Reinhardt, the pride of the Karen people shone through the music and the dance, and the girl witnessed how the performers connected to their culture by connecting to each other. The girl asked her father if she could join the dance troupe to learn more customs of their culture. And less than a year later, she grew into the role of primary dancer of the Nebraska Karen Dance Group.
“She’s like a little lion,” Reinhardt said. “The way she just jumps up on to other dancer’s shoulders. The way she is so proud.”
Throughout Lincoln, there are several groups, organizations and activities like the Karen Dance Group that encourage young first-generation Americans to explore the traditions of their families’ cultures by helping them understand that their culture matters and belongs within their American identity.
Reinhardt’s position at the Asian Community and Cultural Center allows her to oversee the growth of cultural involvement of children of refugees and immigrants through the center’s dance troupes. After growing up in the Hunan province of China and working her way up in the Chinese broadcasting business, Reinhardt moved to the United States in 1999 to be with her husband. She found her way to the Asian Community and Cultural Center, where she has been organizing dance troupes and cultural celebrations in the Lincoln community for five years.
“My father was a professor of dance,” Reinhardt said. “I grew up around dance and art. So, I have always seen performing as something everyone can connect to and a great way to bring cultures together and share them with the community.”
The performing and art groups managed by Reinhardt include the Karen Dance Group, a Chinese lion dance group, a youth Yazidi dance program, a Latin fusion band and a multicultural fashion group. According to Reinhardt, the majority of the groups are made up mostly of young children of refugees and immigrants, which means the younger generations are interested in connecting to their families’ cultures and fitting them into their American identities.
“The children of immigrants will naturally acclimate to American culture, but we need to remember that the parents have sacrificed so much of who they are to leave their home,” she said. “When children are involved in the traditions of their family culture, it not only helps children remember the culture, but it allows parents to keep their culture by connecting with their children.”
When Reinhardt immigrated to the United States, she made sure she held on to her Chinese roots by ensuring her children learned Mandarin while they also learned English. By providing them with the linguistic tools to connect to American and Chinese culture, Reinhardt’s children can share their Chinese heritage with their friends in a way that allows them all to gain a greater understanding of each other.
Each immigrant or refugee family is different, however, and can choose how they integrate their culture into the younger generation’s lives, according to Natalie Wiebelhaus, the youth coordinator at the Asian Community and Cultural Center.
“Whether or not the kids learn their culture’s language or customs is up to how ‘American’ the parents want their children to be,” she said. “Sometimes the decision of whether or not to immerse kids in a culture is not a conscious choice, and our programs aim to make people think about how they are integrating culture into their kids’ lives.”
Some refugees or immigrants do not want their children to face the language and culture barriers they face in their new country, so they avoid teaching them language and customs that could make the children less immersed in American culture, Wiebelhaus said.
The activities and events hosted by the Asian Community and Cultural Center are designed to inspire younger generations to share their culture with the Lincoln community in order to strengthen their ties to both the culture they observe at home and the culture they absorb in the city.
For example, Wiebelhaus coordinates a digital storytelling class for teenage first-generation Americans who are interested in sharing their perspectives through photography and video.
“Digital storytelling empowers youth to tell their stories in their voices,” she said. . “They don’t have to make their story make sense to any specific culture, it just needs to speak their truth as new Americans.”
At the Asian Community and Cultural Center’s Lunar New Year celebration, people from a variety of cultures come to share and learn and appreciate the community they have created in Lincoln. The dance troupes perform, Karen women offer cloth weaving demonstrations, children help make dumplings and Reinhardt admires the pride that has grown within the Asian community in Lincoln.
“The dance troupes and events we put on are a wonderful way to teach children about a culture, but they are just supplements to what the community can do,” she said. “When all residents of Lincoln care about learning each other’s cultures, the cultures become more integrated into everyday life and live on despite the distance of generations.”
This year’s Lunar New Year celebration on Feb. 23 unfortunately coincided with a winter storm, and Reinhardt was concerned no one would brave the ice and snow. One dance troupe had only one girl show up to the event.
But even with treacherous streets and the frigid temperatures, over 400 people came to celebrate and share in Lincoln’s diverse communities.
And according to Reinhardt, everyone watched as the one girl danced alone, her face beaming with certainty and pride.
Immigrants and refugees often come into the United States facing a steep climb to acclimate to a new culture without the English language to help.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, only 14 percent of refugees in the U.S. believed they could speak English well in 2015, while 38 percent said they couldn’t speak the language at all.
That’s where people like longtime interpreter Elizabeth Nguyen come in.
Nguyen bridges the language gap for immigrants and refugees who are in the midst of their transition into the United States. For the last 29 years, Nguyen has served as an interpreter in the medical and educational fields and in the courtroom. She’s also taught courses on interpreting at Southeast Community College.
“You lend your voice,” she said of her work.
Nguyen, 70, speaks French, English and Vietnamese. She was born in the South Vietnamese province of Can Tho in 1949. As a child, she attended Marie Curie High School, a French high school in Saigon. There, she learned to speak both English and Vietnamese as additional required languages.
Living in Vietnam during the Vietnam War created burdens for Nguyen and her family. Since her father was a high-ranking French military officer, who coincidentally was also an interpreter, Nguyen’s family was considered an enemy to the Communist North Vietnamese.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in pedagogy and psychology from the University of Saigon in 1974, Nguyen began teaching English and French at the Taberd Secondary Institute in Saigon. After just a year working for the Institute, however, Nguyen was removed because of her family’s political background.
“It was miserable,” she said.
Following her removal, Nguyen began teaching privately, helping those hoping to emigrate learn English and French. In 1979, she began working as an interpreter at the French Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. She continued to teach privately while working at the consulate until 1985, when she was contracted out as a teacher at the Le Qui Don Foreign Language Center until 1990.
Then, opportunity struck for Nguyen. She was offered a position as an interpreter for the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. Nguyen’s husband and four children temporarily lived in a refugee camp in Bataan while she worked for the embassy for seven months. The family eventually emigrated together to Lincoln in April 1991.
Nguyen quickly found a groove working on her own as an interpreter in Lincoln. Thanks to her previous experience with the U.S. Embassy, Nguyen was already on her first assignment on just her second day in the country.
“It was for a parking ticket, and I was already interpreting it,” she said. “I remember asking the prosecutor to slow down during court.”
Since then, Nguyen has become a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to interpreting services. She’s made a late-night visit to the hospital to patiently aid a mother giving birth for seven hours. She’s even interpreted for drug-trafficking cases in Mexico.
Nguyen’s resume is chalk-full of interpreting experience. She’s worked with Catholic Social Services, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Lancaster County district and juvenile courts.
Currently, Nguyen works with LanguageLinc, a Lincoln-based company that provide interpreters and translators throughout Nebraska. She’s worked with the company since 2007, primarily focusing on medical and court interpreting.
Nguyen also taught a course entitled “The Role of the Interpreter” at Southeast Community College from 2006 until 2016. The course, which covers everything from ethical problems faced by interpreters to each student’s professional development, was developed in 1999 after the idea of interpreter training was discussed at meeting of the New Americans Task Force, which focuses on services for the city’s immigrants and refugees. Nguyen focused largely on her own personal experiences as an interpreter during her time teaching the course.
“I’ve got a lot of enthusiasm, and I carry it over to when I teach,” she said. “I try to create a friendly, comfortable atmosphere.”
The course is one of two taught at SCC, the other being an introductory course to medical interpreting.
The courses are designed specifically with refugees and immigrant students in mind, according to ESL assistant director Susan Kash-Brown.
Additionally, the courses are non-credit courses, which makes themless expensive.
“We want students to get a thorough understanding of the profession,” Kash-Brown said. “As interpreters, we want them to know their roles and responsibilities as interpreters.”
Each course is taught by instructors who have practical experience as interpreters. The courses often feature guest speakers that allow students to possibly find job opportunities outside of the course.
Nguyen said her role as an interpreter has given her the chance to give back to the local Vietnamese community.
For example, Nguyen, a practicing Catholic, volunteered to interpret the recent announcement of the closure of Sacred Heart Catholic School at the end of the year.
“I believe God has given me the opportunity to help my people,” she said. “It’s my mission.”
Children interpreters find challenges and benefits
Carla Jimenez spent a lot of her childhood explaining things to her parents.
Jimenez’s parents are from the Philippines, but she was born and raised in North Texas. Despite her parents being able to speak both English and Tagalog fluently, some things got lost in translation.
“My mom, she didn’t understand the concept of a sleepover,” she said. “So I would have to explain that to her. I’d just sort of grown up having to explain to her what something meant, what something in slang meant, what a certain concept of American culture meant.”
Translating for parents isn’t always easy for first-generation Americans and can be frustrating and awkward, particularly during doctor visits or parent-teacher conferences. In Lincoln, a bilingual liaison program helps to take the burden off of children as the primary translators for family.
And despite the difficulties, many of these young translators found their role to be a good experience and something that helped them in their new country.
For Jimenez and many other first-generation Americans, helping their parents understand their new American culture and language was a part of everyday life.
“It was never anything that I thought was weird, growing up,” said Jimenez, now a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It was just normal for me.”
For Andrew Tran, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, translating was also a normal part of his childhood. He started translating his parents and grandparents as a kindergartner.
No one in his family was able to speak English when they arrived in the United States from Vietnam. His parents, who met in the Unites States, had taken some English classes before he was born.
“They knew enough to get by, but not enough to hold a conversation with anyone,” he said.
For Lillian Ye, translation was a family expectation.
“I can’t really remember when I first started (translating),” she said. “I just remember I grew up with it. It was something that was expected of us (Ye and her siblings) to help our parents to do because transitioning from an Asian language to something like English was really difficult.”
Ye’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from China to find jobs, didn’t know much English and took ESL classes in the morning and worked at night for a number of years.
Ye, a freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, translated for her parents constantly -- at school events, at the doctor’s office, at church, at grocery stores. If her parents had a question about something or wanted to speak to a manager, she was the mediator.
Ye found it difficult to translate some words and ideas from one language to another. Doctor’s visits were one of the more challenging situations for Ye to translate in, mostly because of the medical terminology.
She said that it’s been easier for her family to get translators for their doctor’s visits now, but in the past it was usually her responsibility to translate.
“I would try to describe things to the best of my abilities, or ask the doctor to put it in plainer English,” she said. “I wouldn’t say
I’m super well-versed in medical terminology, so I had to improvise and find ways to explain things in a way my parents would understand.”
Ye also had to translate for her parents at school events. She said that her school district in Springfield, Illinois, had translators available occasionally, but most of the time she didn’t remember anyone translating for her family.
She went to her own parent-teacher conferences as well as those for her younger siblings. She said that these weren’t always the most comfortable situations for her to listen to and translate in.
Tran said that his school in Minnesota offered translation services, but his parents chose not to use them in hopes of helping improve his language skills.
So, he also went to his parent-teacher conferences to translate.
“It was awkward when your parents want to know about your grades or how you’re doing in class when you might not want them to know too much about it,” he said.
Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) offers a bilingual liaison program for immigrant and refugee families who may need language services to communicate with teachers and staff. The program is designed to eliminate situations like the ones Ye and Tran were in for the benefit of everyone involved.
“We are the link between the schools and the families who come from all over the world,” said Oscar Rios Pohirieth, a cultural specialist and the bilingual liaison coordinator for federal programs at LPS. In his position, he oversees the district’s 24 bilingual liaisons who serve all of Lincoln’s public schools.
The 24 liaisons he oversees represent 13 languages, including Vietnamese, Arabic and Spanish.
They offer both written and spoken translations for families who need it. They also try to approach each situation with the cultural understanding needed to make each family comfortable and resolve any possible miscommunication between schools and families.
Because the liaisons are available at every school, LPS does not allow students to translate for their parents when talking to teachers or other staff, Pohirieth said.
“We could be liable for using the services of a minor within a family structure,” he said. “It is prohibited to a certain extent, to use a minor as an interpreter or translator.”
There are a number of reasons LPS has for wanting to keep students from translating. He said that conflict of interests can be created by giving the student the power of language that the parents don’t have.
LPS also wants to make sure that parents and families receive accurate information from the schools.
“Let’s say we use a middle school or high school kid,” he said. “Are we really going to get the information the teacher wants to share with the family about this student’s behavior? Or are they going to manipulate it in such a way that the parents only get a certain amount of information?”
Aside from making sure the information conveyed to families is complete and accurate, there are many other benefits to the bilingual liaison program.
“When a new family comes to Lincoln, Nebraska and they see someone who looks like them and someone who speaks like them, there is an immediate relationship,” Pohirieth said.
Once that relationship is established, he said that it’s much easier to engage the families in school-related activities and events.
Translating for parents presents different challenges for everyone. But, being bilingual or multilingual provides a multitude of benefits for those who can speak more than one language.
According to a pamphlet from the U.S. Department of Education, being bilingual helps with one’s cognitive development, problem solving skills and improves the ability to think abstractly.
Knowing multiple languages can also help in the long term: job opportunities for bilingual people—particularly those who can speak Spanish, Arabic or Chinese—have exploded in the last few years in the United States, according to a 2017 study by New American Economy.
Being bilingual allows people to switch between languages and cultures and interact with people in a unique and different way.
Tran said that translating helped get him out of his shell when he was a kid, and taught him how to adapt and react to new situations.
“I think translating was a good thing for me,” Tran said. “I got to expand my language skills in both Vietnamese and English, and it helped me understand and talk to people.”
Ye said that translating for her family provided her with communication skills that she might not have gained otherwise.
“I’m really glad I got to do it,” she said. “It helped me learn to understand people in a different way, especially when you can’t communicate directly with them. It was definitely a good experience, and it has given me some experiences that I can use with people I meet now.”
A Park Middle School Panther wrestling meet is similar to most middle school wrestling meets. Coaches yell directions to the wrestlers, and the wrestlers try to follow the commands.
Except at Panther meets, the distinctive sounds of the Karen language echo through the gym. And not from the coaches, but from the young wrestlers.
Through his six years with the Park Middle School program, wrestlers have come and gone, said coach Jason Wunderlich, but one thing has remained constant — grit of Karen wrestlers.
“They’re OK with the idea of being tough,” said Wunderlich, who also teaches math and science at the school. “When it comes out to a match, they can be hurt, getting squeezed on and they don’t quit.”
The Panthers featured eight Karen-speaking wrestlers on the team’s roster this year. The Park Middle School wrestling program touted 13 city champs, with five undefeated records on the team. Five of those city champs were Karen wrestlers.
But the triumphs of these wrestlers do not come without obstacles.
Like all sports, in order to achieve success, athletes must be able to hear directions from their coaches on the sidelines. However, how does the communication channel between coach and athlete flow when a language barrier exists in the middle?
Six of the eight Karen wrestlers only speak Karen.
Here is how it works. The entire Panther wrestling team stands by the coaches and cheer on their teammate. Either wrestling coach, Wunderlich or Christian Schmohr, will identify a problem or an opportunity for the wrestler. Wunderlich and Schmohr will tell one of the bilingual Karen wrestlers the direction and they will relay it on to the battling teammate by repeating the direction in Karen.
This effective formula has carried many of Wunderlich’s Karen wrestlers into high school wrestling.
One of those is Lincoln High junior Plat Plot Soe, who has had more success on that mat than most high school wrestlers.
Soe, who wrestles at 120 pounds, was the first Burmese student from Lincoln High to qualify for state in the school’s history. Despite not placing in the 2018 tournament, his influence and success have spread amongst other Karen and Burmese students.
“A lot of kids really look up to him,” said Lincoln High wrestling coach Andy Genrich, “What helped to get more kids out this year than previous years was he went to state last year.”
According to Genrich, Soe already had a decent English background. This has helped him double as a state-qualifying wrestler and translator for the Lincoln High wrestling program.
From the middle school level to high school, this method has been essential for both program’s non-English speaking wrestlers.
Throughout the Park Panther’s wrestling season, countless messages between coaches and non-English speaking athletes are translated.
But one message that needs no translation is the team’s motto “Quitting is a choice.” The Karen wrestlers of Park Middle School know well want that motto means because they are living it.
Incorporating virtual reality in language learning
Imagine this: You’re standing on a rooftop trying to have a conversation with a Spanish man. The sun beats down as you struggle to form the right words. You pause for a minute to watch a man on your left who’s playing basketball.
“Baloncesto,” your partner says, uttering the Spanish word for basketball. He then tells you he has to go; it’s late there.
He’s in Barcelona and you’re in a small room at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
How is this possible? Two words: virtual reality.
It’s one of many modern and innovative ways that people are learning and teaching different languages. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Elizabeth Enkin is on the cutting edge of it.
“It (virtual reality) is just such a new way to learn and such a new way to see the world that I think it will be a massive success to both learn and teach,” she said.
Through the help of some grants, Enkin, along with UNL Language Lab manager Eric Kirschling, takes language teaching to the next level. Earlier this year, the two took an app that Enkin developed and turned it into a web-based virtual reality game.
The Spanish Language Maze a psycholinguistic, experimental technique. Enkin described the app as the “bare bones” of what the project will become.
In it, the user is prompted to choose between two words to make a sentence. One is correct, and one is incorrect.In adapting it to virtual reality, the Spanish Language Maze takes advantage of what’s known as “six degrees of freedom.” This means that the user is interacting with both their head and their hands. So, instead of just recognizing the correct word, the player must go out and actively grab it. This, Enkin said, takes immersive learning to a whole new level.
“I think the whole goal is to promote autonomous learning using emerging technology,” she said. “It’s really important that we have apps that can provide that.”
Individualized learning is certainly an opportunity that’s been widened in the digital age. Jenelle Reeves, a professor in UNL’s Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education program, said this focus on the individual is a major change that she’s seen in language education over the years. Instead of being shoved into a curriculum, she said, learners now drive it. This allows individuals to better learn at their own pace.
Making sure language learners are seen as people and not “just another student” is crucial in the advancement of knowledge. Using apps that are personalized to the user allows for this to grow. On a one-on-one level, these are extremely helpful in closing language gaps.
When it comes to group settings, however, competitive individual games aren’t always the way to go. Reeves spent years teaching English in Japan and Korea. There, they viewed the idea of the individual rising above the group as something negative.
“It’s necessary to remember that, not just culturally but also individually, some personalities work with certain instructional settings better than others,” she said. This means that what works with a group of Spanish speakers wouldn’t necessarily work with students from East Asia.
Enkin and Reeves think apps are becoming the future of language learning. The whole world, it seems, is shifting toward digital media. As Enkin put it: a lot of life happens online.
While rising technology creates ample opportunities for growth and learning, it also creates problems. As it grows, the digital divide grows along with it. This is the gulf between areas that have great access to technology and those that have little.
The digital divide is often very prevalent among refugees settling in the United States and other countries. What some people may see as basic knowledge may be something completely foreign to them.
Reeves said she didn’t see any risks involved in introducing students to major technology, such as desktops, right away. Falling behind or becoming lost and confused isn’t too big of an issue, she said. As all school testing is done on computers, children and teens are able to adapt to it fairly quickly. Integrating laptops at schools helps to close this further.
Not everyone has access to such technology, though. This is something that Sam Morgan, a tutor at Lincoln Literacy, faces time and again.
“I still have classes where a few students don’t have smartphones or internet connection,” Morgan said. “It really gives you a window into the economic divide. Some people just don’t have the time or money to get acquainted with technology.”
Even in the classrooms, Morgan has trouble bringing electronics into the learning setting. Often, the classrooms he’s in aren’t well-equipped to host technology-heavy lessons. Even if they were, there’s still the issue of the digital divide.
Morgan also said he doesn’t want to become a teacher who’s reliant on a PowerPoint presentation. Because of this, he has to think of new ways to teach his students.
One of the main ways he engages his students is through more traditional games and media. He said engaging, visual games such as Pictionary help students retain words in a more relaxed setting.
Morgan also found that showing movies and dissecting slang is helpful. This way, he said, they’re learning words that are more practical in everyday life. He also uses short clips that show regional dialects, such as this clip from the movie “Fargo,” which demonstrates a North Dakotan accent to the students This method also shows them how they can learn with more basic, accessible technology.
All of this doesn’t mean that language teachers should shy away from new media. What they should do, Enkin said, is make sure that, no matter what, they’re adapting. Students want new techniques, and it’s the teachers’ responsibility to give it to them, she said.
Innovation in language teaching will continue to evolve. Whether it’s through simple games or advanced virtual reality, the ball is already rolling. According to Enkin, Reeves and Morgan, it needs to be.
“Language connects the world,” Enkin said. “So, don’t be scared.”
Going above and beyond for their students
When Sarai Douglas, an English Language Learner teacher at Lincoln High School, says she considers her students family — she means it.
Since she started teaching at Lincoln High in 2011, Douglas has welcomed two students into her home to live with her and her family.
Going above and beyond as a teacher is important, Douglas said. She wants what is best for her students — whether it is working through language barriers and ensuring students are challenged in the classroom or doing things outside the classroom, such as driving students to soccer practice or helping them read their family’s mail.
“I want our kids to be over prepared because I know how much less they have to offer when they’re competing for scholarships and when they’re competing for jobs,” she said.
As department chair, Douglas said she strives to make Lincoln High’s ELL program the best it can be, despite the many challenges. Douglas admits that juggling three levels of ELL classes on top her of her position as chair, coupled with her 5-year-old daughter and her home life, keep her busy.
But in addition to the work-life balance, one of the biggest academic challenges for ELL teachers is coordinating learning and engagement among students who have different levels of learning, said Laura Salem, who supervises the LPS ELL program.
While there is a plan in place for all ELL students to work through, Salem said, it’s not always as cut-and-dry as people think it might be.
“We know that students are going to come in with a lot of different pieces that they might be missing or they need some extra time with, so we do have to be flexible within that,” Salem said.
On top of assimilating into a new culture and way of life, sometimes students have problems that go much deeper than education, which is why Douglas has allowed two former students to share her home.
The first to live in the Douglas family home was a Sudanese girl whose family was torn apart in the Second Sudanese Civil War and had been brought to the United States by an aunt. After enduring a rocky relationship with the aunt, she had no place to live in order to graduate from LHS. Upon graduation, she moved to Tennessee and is now employed at an Amazon distribution center.
The second was a Mexican girl who immigrated to live with her father, whom she hadn’t seen in years and became estranged from once in Lincoln.
Douglas learned of the girl’s situation after finding her crying in the women’s restroom at Lincoln High in 2014. The girl told Douglas she had been evicted from her father’s house and had nowhere to go. After driving the student home to collect her things, which her father had left on his front lawn, Douglas and the student set out to find a place that she could call home.
“After lots of moving around, she eventually came and lived with us,” said Douglas, who was pregnant at the time. “She actually still lives with us now, and she’s in college.”
According to Douglas, she’s motivated and inspired to come to school each day by the drive and determination of her students. Even though some of her students carry the weight of the world on their shoulders — from past traumas to family problems and even having to work full-time — they still show up to class every day ready to learn.
Being an ELL teacher wasn’t in Douglas’ plan when she started her undergraduate career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2004. She was working part-time for the University Press and had dreams of becoming a poet, although she knew she needed a fallback plan. She started at UNL as an education major, but switched to English.
Later, while pursuing a master’s degree in education at UNL, a counselor recommended that Douglas add a focus in ELL as a way to make herself more marketable as a teacher.
“At the time I had zero intention of teaching ELL and very little intention of actually being a teacher,” she said.
While student teaching for an ELL third grade class, Douglas said her passion for teaching the English language blossomed.
“They’re really cute and they all had such different stories,” she said of her students. “It just seemed like an environment that was much more purposeful and hopeful than anything I’d experienced.”
Douglas’ first ELL position was in a kindergarten classroom at Clinton Elementary, where she was hired a week before the 2010-11 school year began. Though she had a “great time learning and connecting with students and their families,” she really wanted to return to her alma mater, Lincoln High School.
When a position in the ELL department at LHS opened for the 2011-2012 school year, she transferred there, where she’s been ever since.
“After my first year I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” she said.
Taking in students, staying up late and going in early, managing classes and grading – it has all been worth it, Douglas said.
“There’s just something very liberating and rewarding that comes with encountering every kid as themselves,” she said. “If I’m devoting all of this time to work then I’m grateful that this is the work that I’m doing.”
Michele Langer spends a good amount of her day putting on a show in her Goodrich Middle School classroom.
Langer says that to be an English Language Learner teacher means that you have to be willing to foolishly perform, even if you don’t have a bit of “actor in your blood.”
“I’m not an artist, and I’m certainly not an actress, and yet I do both,” she said.
Langer, who has been an ELL teacher at Goodrich Middle School since 2001, uses both art and acting to work through language barriers in her classroom.
With students from countries and cultures all around the world, Langer relies on these techniques to set her students up for success in both their personal and academic lives.
Langer spent the first 13 years of her career teaching seventh grade English and social studies at Culler Middle School, which is where her interest in ELL began.
“I started to have more English-proficient students streamed into my classrooms, and that was my first exposure to working with ELL kids,” Langer said. “I found them, their life stories and their experiences so fascinating.”
Langer says the professional relationships that she developed during her time at Culler, coupled with the initial experience of the students, eventually turned into a love for ELL. That love prompted her to head back to school herself in 2000 so she could teach ELL.
The 1986 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate enrolled in the ELL Supplemental Endorsement Program at UNL, and in 2001, started on as an ELL teacher at Goodrich Middle.
In her nearly 20 years at Goodrich, Langer has worked with hundreds of students, each with individual language needs. She said if there’s one thing she’s learned, it’s that her students are just the same as other students in the middle school.
“The reason I teach ELL is because they are simultaneously the most needy and the most resilient students,” she said. “They want to fit in, like all kids do, they want to have friends, like all kids do, they want to participate in the parts of school that are fun, in addition to the learning.”
Langer said that as an ELL teacher it’s important to recognize both the big and the small victories she has with her students.
“There are these little tiny victories that we experience as ELL teachers,” Langer said. “We tend to be more involved with our student’s families, and you end up being able to solve problems for them that are super meaningful, and honestly, so tiny.”
For example, Langer once went on a home visit for a student to meet their new baby sibling and upon her arrival noticed that the smoke detector was chirping because of a low battery.
“Here’s this exhausted mother who doesn’t speak English in a foreign place in the middle of winter, and she’s got a new baby,” Langer said. “I was just grateful for the opportunity to run to the Walgreens and buy a battery.”
Langer said that she feels that being an ELL teacher is her mission in life. She loves going to work because the whole world shows up at her door every morning and allows her to learn too, she said.
“People who stick this job out are, in a way, missionaries as much as they are teachers - without the religious piece,” Langer said. “It really becomes your mission more than your job, and you do what you have to do.”
If you had asked Audrey Andrews what an English Language Learner teacher was when she was a high school student, she probably would have given you a funny look.
The Kooser Elementary School ELL teacher admits she didn’t even know that ELL existed until the summer after she graduated from high school. During that time, Andrews worked as an after-school program assistant at Elliott Elementary. As part of her job, Andrews was responsible for finding the ELL students at the end of the school day and escorting them to the after-school program.
“It was so fun finding the lost little ones and helping them get to where they needed to be,” Andrews said.
After graduating from Doane College with degrees in elementary education, ELL and Spanish in 2009, Andrews began teaching fourth grade at Kahoa Elementary School, and after five years she left to accept a position at a school in North Carolina.
However, when she made her way back to Nebraska a year later, Andrews thought back to her experience before college and realized she wanted to be involved with ELL students. In 2015 Andrews accepted a position as an ELL teacher at Kooser Elementary, which she says has been incredibly fulfilling.
“Our kids need us in life, in general,” Andrews said. “We are kind of their safety net. We’re more like moms and dads because we buy the valentines, I have toothbrushes and toothpaste under my sink. They truly need us, which is a really fulfilling job to have.”
Similar to ELL programs at the middle and high school level, the elementary ELL program in LPS is structured by levels.
A student in the level 1 category would be considered a high language needs student, and therefore would spend most of their day in an ELL classroom. Whereas a student in Level 3 of the program might only spend two hours in an ELL classroom daily and students in Levels 4 and 5 of the program have the option to opt out of the program with parental consent.
According to Andrews, one of the most rewarding parts of her job is seeing students reach levels 4 and 5 of the program.
“You build these relationships with these students, and it’s hard to send them on,” Andrews said. “But it’s always fulfilling to lose students because that means they don’t need me anymore.”
Just this year, Andrews was able to tell a fifth grade student who she’s worked with for four years that she won’t be in an ELL program next year because of her success.
But with the highs of being an ELL teacher, also come lows. For Andrews, one of the hardest parts of her job is making her students and their families feel comfortable, she said.
“These kids and their families are taken away from everything and everyone they know,” Andrews said. “Then they’re put somewhere where they are lost all day long. Our job is to make them feel safe and comfortable and get them to a place where they can open up and start talking.”
By building these relationships with her students and their families, Andrews said she believes she is setting her students up for a successful life.
“We help them help themselves by connecting them to the community, getting them involved and helping them to find the resources they need so they don’t have to rely on others,” Andrews said.
Relating to students and their hardships
They came from different backgrounds and became English-language tutors for different reasons, but Tareq Al Shareefi and Arlenne Rodriguez can relate to their students better than most.
Al Shareefi and Rodriguez did not learn English as their first language, and they’ve suffered hardships only the immigrants and refugees they tutor can understand.
For Al Shareefi, becoming a tutor was all about giving back to a community that went above and beyond to make him feel welcome. For Rodriguez, it was about getting back a piece of her culture that she pushed away for so long.
The desire to give back for Al Shareefi came after a medical emergency he suffered in Lincoln. He and his family fled their home in Baghdad, Iraq, in the chaos of the Gulf War, after his two brothers were killed and his son kidnapped. The family eventually settled in Lincoln because they had friends here, but shortly after arriving, Al Shareefi ended up in the hospital with dangerously high blood pressure.
“They took great care of me, and they only asked me two questions: what my name was and what my address was,” he said.
That was in sharp contrast to an earlier medical incident when the family was living in Oman after fleeing Iraq. Al Shareefi said a hospital there wouldn’t treat his daughter for a burst appendix without payment up front.
“It took one hour for someone suffering from blood poisoning to get help, just because they wanted to receive their money first,” said Al Shareefi, who had to travel from the hospital back to his home 30 minutes away to get cash. “It was a matter of minutes before she was about to lose her life.”
After his release from the Lincoln hospital, Al Shareefi received a $5,000 bill, and he was prepared to pay it, but a friend called the hospital and explained the family’s situation. Another bill followed, but this time the balance was zero.
“After that I wanted to do something in return for these people welcoming my family and doing so many good things for us with no return,” he said.
When he later heard that the Good Neighbor Community Center was seeking English tutors for refugees and immigrants, he signed up immediately, and he’s been there ever since. That was four years ago.
For Rodriguez, the motivation for tutoring was different. She was born in the U.S. and grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, with her parents, who are Mexican immigrants. Spanish was her first language and English her second.
“I felt super embarrassed all the time because of having to translate for my parents,” she said, recalling trips to the doctor’s office, parent teacher conferences and the grocery store. “They didn’t understand, and they would ask so many questions all the time.”
Because of embarrassment, Rodriguez said she didn’t try to teach her parents English while living at home. She yearned to be like the other kids and worked hard to get rid of her accent, which is something she regrets today.
“Why was I so embarrassed?” she asked, a pained expression on her face. “I could have just helped them as I was learning English, too.”
Her father took English classes in Grand Island but stopped going because he felt the tutors were impatient.
It wasn’t until college when Rodriguez started to gain a great appreciation for her culture, which she tried to suppress for so long.
“I remember thinking, there’s probably people like that out there that want to learn English, but they’re frustrated,” she said. “And there’s probably kids that felt like I did when I was younger, frustrated and embarrassed by their parents who can’t speak English well.”
This was why Rodriguez signed up to become an English tutor at Lincoln Literacy eight months ago, and she’s loved every minute of it.
At the Good Neighbor Community Center, Al Shareefi teaches English to a group of about 14 students Monday through Friday for two hours. His students are from Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon and Iran.
“We do a lot of good things for these people, and I really love doing them,” he said. “I want them all to be happy in their lives with no barriers between them and other people.”
Al Shareefi believes there is an advantage for his students having him as their English tutor because they are able to learn from someone who looks like them, sounds like them and lead similar lives.
“When I speak with them, they know that I have suffered like them,” he said. “I have lost people that are dear to me, people we still cannot find today. We all have similar experiences.”
In Baghdad, Al Shareefi was CEO of Fenex Trading and Contracting Co. Ltd., a company that supplies materials for the aluminum and cable industry. He knew English while living in Iraq because of the business he did with foreign countries, such as the U.S.
In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad to remove Sadam Hussein’s regime, local companies like his that worked with the U.S. were accused of supporting the U.S. troops.
“My two brothers working with me in my company were kidnapped and unfortunately killed,” he said. “We still have not found their bodies today.”
Al Shareefi’s family reached their breaking point when his son was also kidnapped and almost killed. After paying a lot of money in ransom to save his son’s life, the family decided to flee to Europe and then Oman.
Like many of the new Americans he tutors, Al Shareefi understands the desire to find protection for his family.
“We were tired of moving, and we wanted to come to a place where we could feel safe and live our own lives,” he said.
At the Good Neighbor Community Center, Al Shareefi continues every day to give back to the community that welcomed him four years ago. He encourages his students to work hard at learning English so that they can do the same. He said his main goal for each of his students is to get a job. If they can do that, everything else will be easy.
“My true will is to help them, and it is a big mission, but I am a good fighter,” he said. “I’m still pushing everybody to learn, and they are doing so well.”
In her experience tutoring, Rodriguez said she relates more to the children of her students because she knows what it’s like to grow up as your parent’s translator.
One night after class, the daughter of one of Rodriguez’s students thanked her for doing such a good job with her mom.
“She told me, ‘I could have taught her this, but I didn’t want to because I was so embarrassed that she didn’t know English, but if I was so embarrassed, I should have done something about it.’”
Rodriguez told the daughter she knew exactly how she felt, and the only thing that mattered now was that she was getting her mom the English help she needed.
Rodriguez said being an English tutor has made her a better person, with more patience, empathy and knowledge of other cultures. What makes it all worth it for her is not just expanding her students’ vocabulary, but also their confidence.
One of Rodriguez’s former students from Iraq loved to do karaoke, but he was embarrassed to sing because of how little English he knew. He told Rodriguez his goal was to learn “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler.
Rodriguez spent nearly two hours practicing the song with her student. She did not expect the news he came back with the next week.
“He said, ‘I did it; I sang the song!’” Rodriguez recalled. “He just started crying, and then I started crying. We were also laughing so hard, and he’s like, ‘I can’t believe I just sang that song!’”
Today, Al Shareefi helps run his company in Iraq while living in Lincoln. His family is anxiously waiting on the status of their permanent residency application. However, with the new U.S. immigration policies and circumstances in Iraq, things are taking longer than expected.
“We will respect whatever decision because we know they have done everything for us, and we are happy in all cases, whatever happens,” he said.
In the meantime, Al Shareefi will continue his work at the Good Neighbor Community Center as a way to pay back the hospital. In Al Shareefi’s culture, this debt is one he will pay for the rest of his life, but he’s OK with that.
For Rodriguez, volunteering at Lincoln Literacy has given her a newfound respect for her parents and where she came from.
“I’ve just been appreciating my culture so much more,” she said. “I think it’s because of the classes. I’m seeing why our culture is so important and all the traditions we do.”
Rodriguez’s parents English has gotten much better, and she helps them whenever she can. Her father is taking college classes, so they often FaceTime, and she helps him with his essays or words he doesn’t know.
Rodriguez, who now serves as a coordinator at Lincoln Literacy, encourages others to get involved.
“If you know English, I think you should definitely try to help people who don’t,” Rodriguez said. “What if you were in a different place and didn’t know the language? Just think about how scared or uncomfortable so many of them must feel.”
On a frigid winter night, a dozen immigrants and refugees gathered in a Belmont Elementary School classroom and chatted among themselves as the smooth, warm voice of Carole King crooned in the background.
The group was waiting for their family literacy course to begin while their teacher, Renee Cox, walked around the classroom, taking a vinyl record of King’s seminal “Tapestry” out of the aging album sleeve to show them.
Cox uses music throughout many of her courses as a supplemental tool to help immigrants and refugees learn English. She began working as a volunteer for Lincoln Literacy in August 2017, where she worked with the immigrant and refugee program. There, she spent most of her time with people who recently arrived in Lincoln, but eventually began working with more advanced English classes.
In January 2018, she was hired by Lincoln Literacy as adult empowerment program manager and now teaches a family literacy class, a partnership between Lincoln Literacy and Lincoln Public Schools to help parents of LPS students with English skills.
In her experience, Cox has found that using music can be effective for those in both basic and advanced English courses when applied correctly.
For example, Cox uses a song such as Meghan Trainor’s “Thank You” to teach students basic expressions. It also teaches students how to identify and use idioms and slangs, like using the word “gonna” instead of “going to,” in everyday discussions.
She said it’s important to learn these subtle nuances, even if they are hard to grasp for non-native speakers initially.
“I had one person I was teaching say, ‘That’s not proper English,’ even though everybody uses it,” she said. “Even though it isn’t going to be used in formal language, people need to know what that means.”
While basic classes tend to focus on the foundations of the English language, advanced classes allow more flexibility to discuss American culture.
“When you have someone who is kind of advanced in English it is much easier to teach cultural norms or behaviors than someone who was just beginning,” she said. “For example, in the conversation group, you are able to get into the subtleties of the English language than with beginners.”
Take Macklemore’s “Good Old Days,” for example. Cox uses the song in advanced classes to discuss camping and national parks in the United States.
“It’s about American culture, but it leads to a meaningful conversation,” she said.
While Cox enjoys using music in her classroom, she believes it is better served as a supplement to learning English, rather than a replacement to traditional learning.
“I know people have said, ‘That’s why I know English’ by watching an episode of ‘Friends’ or watching cartoons,” she said. “I mean I buy that to a certain extent, but you would not believe the amount of cultural knowledge that is understood by us as background information that people who have not grown up with it just don’t get.”
Professor Elizabeth Enkin, vice chair of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Modern Languages and Literatures Department, agreed. According to Enkin, an associate professor of Spanish, pop culture can be a strong tool when supplementing traditional, pedagogical teaching methods.
Enkin’s research at UNL focuses on the use of emerging technology for language instruction. She sees the use of virtual reality and video games as one of the most effective ways to teach language because learners need to communicate with those participating.
“When you are immersed in that type of environment, like a game, you want to win,” Enkin said. “You have a task.”
This falls into what Enkin describes as “task-based communication,” a form of communication in which focusing on fluency is paramount for the learner.
As technology becomes more adaptive and interactive, Enkin believes learning a language will become more interactive. Even now, UNL’s Language Lab is offering students a chance to talk with people across the world through VR chat rooms.
Enkin believes this helps students immerse themselves in the culture of another language, something instrumental in truly understanding a language.
“You learn how to be in the target culture,” she said. “There is no language without the culture, it is embedded in the culture.”
While this technology promotes participation in learning a language, it may not be necessarily practical in a classroom like Cox’s.
In its place, she uses a red solo cup and a viral music video to interact with her class.
Playing “Cups” by Anna Kendrick on a projector and handing out a single plastic cup to her students, Cox slowly broke down the song verse by verse and taught the motions step-by-step.
Their efforts were a bit clumsy at first, but just like learning a language, the cadence of the song and motions became familiar until it was second nature and smiles and laughter began to fill the classroom.
“Music is really the universal language,” she said.
Lack of language skills contributes to loneliness
When Ahmed Hameed left his home in Iraq and arrived in New York City five years ago, he didn’t speak more than a lick of English. “Yes,” “no” and not much else.
There, in a city of over 8 million people, Hameed was alone. Surrounded by people who rattled off words he didn’t understand at a hundred miles an hour, he felt isolated. No one could understand who he was or what he wanted.
Today, even in Lincoln and with a working knowledge of the language, he still feels like an outsider in a community he never expected to live in.
“In Iraq, I didn’t ever dream of coming to America,” he said. “When I came, I woke up.”
Feelings of loneliness among recently arrived immigrants and refugees in America are not uncommon. Lincoln Literacy Associate Director Donna Stadig said many refugees end up feeling alienated from the new community they’ve been forced to become a part of. While there are many reasons for this alienation, language barriers stand out.
“If you feel a part of your community, you are able to say, “Hi, how are you?” or simple things like “It’s very cold out.” To be understood is to be making just the briefest connections with people,” she said. “If you’re not doing that, then it’s not healthy in any way.”
English has the highest number of speakers in the world, with over a billion speakers both native and second-language learners, according to SIL International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that focuses on linguistics.
Despite this statistic, many refugees today come from areas with few English speakers. For Hameed, when he lived in Iraq, learning English was difficult and unnecessary, and he hated it, he said. Then he found himself on the other side of the planet, with no clue how to engage with the Americans walking on the sidewalks and driving in the streets around him.
“In America, everybody speaks English,” he said. “When I came here to America, I started realizing the importance of learning English.”
Learning English can be daunting. Having a clear and understanding teacher is imperative. Lincoln Literacy trains several volunteer instructors each year to run classes. Each instructor has their own reasons for volunteering, but Stadig believes they all possess a desire to help others.
“They want to help people, and if you can read and write English, then you’re qualified,” she said. ”It’s about so much more than just the actual standing up there and teaching.”
Lincoln Literacy does not follow a set curriculum, and instructors are free to run their classroom and write up their lessons any way they please, Stadig said. She said this makes for a lighthearted and welcoming atmosphere.
“If they’re really into music, then they’ll use songs and lyrics to teach English,” she said. “There’s a lot of laughing, and everyone talks about food at some point because that’s the universal thing.”
Often times instructors report forming bonds with their students, said Victoria Welles, Lincoln Literacy’s training and development manager. She described the bond as a two-way street, where the tutors find a friendship in their students and, in exchange, they find joy in watching their students use their language and adapt and assimilate into American culture.
“They’re definitely getting the relationship, which is getting so deep that the tutors are getting a lot from the match. Sometimes they say they even get more (from the lessons) than the student does,” she said. “When a student starts speaking or goes into McDonalds and orders a Big Mac and a large fries, they go back to the tutor, and the tutor is the first one who gets to hear that.”
That bond extends to English language courses outside Lincoln Literacy. For English language learners looking for a more structured classroom setting, Southeast Community College offers English as a Second Language courses each week, although they cost money, unlike Lincoln Literacy.
Roger Holmes, who teaches ESL at Southeast, explained that his reasons for becoming a tutor showed up on his roof one morning three years, exactly on time and as expected. Holmes got to thinking that the eight migrant workers there to work on his roof might be interesting to speak with. But an obstacle appeared almost right away: They all spoke Spanish and none spoke English. Holmes doesn’t speak Spanish.
“I thought ‘Well, there’s one of me and eight of them, so maybe I should learn Spanish,’” he said. “I started learning Spanish, but then the other side of the coin showed itself. I thought they were interesting folks and thought if I could help them learn English then I should.”
From that point forward, Holmes said he has worked to not only teach his students his native language, but run his classroom in a way that allows for them to express themselves. He asks students to write about themselves – and many times students share intimate moments from their home countries and their childhoods before many of them were forced to leave everything behind.
“We generally tend to have a pretty good time in class,” he said. “The fact that they have somehow managed to pick up whatever pieces they were able to get away with and pieces of their own lives to come here and be as positive as they are is remarkable to me.”
These writing assignments have led to some tender moments that Holmes said still cross his mind today. He recalled a Yazidi woman who wrote about her last days in Iraq.
“She came to me and said, ‘I want to write about my people,’ and most of her family got out, but she wrote about driving away from her home and seeing people on the side of the road starving to death,” he said.
Holmes does not pry, and he doesn’t ask his students to delve into their personal lives. In class, everything happens naturally, just the way he wants it.
“I figure if they want to share something painful, then that’s something that’s important to them and that’s good for them,” he said.
Holmes said he has tried to stay in contact with the woman and once visited her and her family, but it was hard to navigate the language barrier between him, his wife and the student’s family.
Still, he said he feels joy whenever he sees her doing well.
Stadig also feels a sense of satisfaction when former students move up in the world, she said.
She spoke of a Karen refugee who had spent much of her life working in rice paddies near a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Lincoln. When she enrolled in Lincoln Literacy, it was the first time she had ever been in a classroom. And she took the classes while working at a grueling job in meatpacking plant. Since then, she has found work at a laundromat and continues to look for better career opportunities.
“She just smiled and came to all the classes and she’s been able to get better jobs with the more English she learns,” Stadig said.
Learning English can be intimidating and frustrating for some new refugees because it’s difficult, Holmes said. He has taught several men who work meatpacking jobs despite having been lawyers in their native countries.
“It’s frustrating for them,” he said. “They have to learn a new alphabet and basically start all over.”
For many, like Hameed, learning English was imperative. It has brought him into the culture of his new home. Today, he works as the head van driver for Lincoln Literacy while he continues to learn English. He said he makes important connections and friendships with his co-workers and former teachers.
Still, it is difficult to shed the feelings of isolationism and loneliness. In that way, finding a sense of home is the most important thing to people forced to leave behind the only one they ever knew.
“Even today I still feel alone. I only communicate with my co-workers. I don’t communicate with any other people outside of work,” Hameed said. “Maybe my personality likes to be alone or doing something by myself. The place I like the most is home.”
Self-expression often lost in translation
Farida Ebrahim grew up in Afghanistan, where the language is poetic and heavily influenced by writers and common verses.
But after fleeing the war in her homeland and moving to Lincoln in 1991, Ebrahim suddenly couldn’t rely on familiar Farsi verses and phrases — she had to find her own words — in English — to express herself.
“At the beginning, it was very difficult for me to keep my sentences straight because English sentence structure is backwards to Farsi,” she said. “There were times that I would speak backwards because I was thinking in Farsi, and I was trying to speak it in English.”
Learning how to communicate thoughts in English is just one of many challenges refugees and immigrants face when they join the Lincoln community. For years Ebrahim relied on hand gestures more than anything else to express herself, which she said is not uncommon. And while new Americans eventually become more comfortable with English, there are often still elements of their home language that are difficult or impossible to translate.
“When I write something, I read it over and over,” she said. “Just to make sure I’m not writing it in Farsi-thinking and backwards sentences.”
Enrolled in classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ebrahim had to write the Farsi translation for many of the words in her textbooks. Her biology textbook, for example, had more Farsi words written in it than English.
“I had to translate many words within a sentence or paragraph to understand what the science concept was,” she said. “That’s what helped me learn. So, I learned English as a byproduct of science.”
On top of classes, Ebrahim would regularly listen to audio books at the public library downtown.
“I would go to work and then I would go there, and I would listen and follow in the books and try to hear the pronunciation,” she said.
It was about 10 years before Ebrahim felt comfortable with English in conversation and in her professional field, which, as a safety specialist with UNL’s Environmental Health and Safety Department, deals largely with science and research. Even after living in Lincoln for 28 years, Ebrahim says she still struggles at times to understand and communicate in situations outside of her area of expertise.
Frauke Hachtmann said she faced a similar struggle when moving to the U.S. from Germany. Though Hachtmann had the advantage of taking English classes since fifth grade, when she came to UNL on a tennis scholarship in 1991 she quickly realized that she had done a lot of reading and writing in English but struggled to speak and have a conversation in English. For the first two weeks of classes, she had no idea what her professors were saying in lecture.
“At the beginning I was just so tired,” said Hachtmann, now a UNL advertising and public relations professor. “I mean, yeah, you have the physical activity from being an athlete, but I think it’s also the mental effort trying to figure out what they’re talking about in class and how everything works. I just remember being pretty exhausted.”
By the third week of classes, Hachtmann said she could understand what was going on in her classes and could communicate the basics, but even as she gained a better understanding of the language, she would constantly second-guess herself. She remembers her hesitation in English classes when she would review and edit the work of her American peers and find errors. She gave the example of American students writing “I should have went,” instead of writing “I should have gone.”
She remembers thinking that since they were Americans, that must be how it is said.
“It was so confusing,” she said.
Hachtmann also said she didn’t know what “you’re welcome” meant when she first moved here. She didn’t understand why, when she bought supplies at the Union, the cashiers would say, “you’re welcome.”
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re so friendly here. That is so sweet, they’re welcoming me,’” she said. “Then the semester went on and on, and all of a sudden, it’s finals week and they’re still saying, ‘You’re welcome.’ Now I’m no longer new here, but then I realized it’s actually part of everyday speech.”
In addition to learning English, refugees and immigrants have to adjust to Midwestern culture, which stands in stark contrast to the western European culture Hachtmann was used to. Europeans, she said, are very direct and straightforward, which is not true of the American Midwest.
“If somebody (in Europe) says, ‘Hey, will you read my essay and let me know what you think?’ and it’s no good, we’re like, ‘This is not good. It’s horrible.’ Here you can’t do it that way,” she said.
She’s had to learn how to present a critique differently, especially as an educator.
“That was not easy, to layer the Nebraska culture on top of all of this. That is something now that my family and friends pick up on when I go back home,” she said. “Just the way I package things, they’re like, ‘You can just tell me, straight up,’ and I’m used to kind of softening it.”
Now, Hachtmann says she feels equally comfortable with English as she does with German. She said it took about two weeks for her to understand English on a fundamental level, one year to feel comfortable holding a normal conversation and three or four years for her to feel comfortable in presentations and speaking in front of people.
“In some ways, it’s now flipped,” she said. “I think and write and teach in English, and I would really have to think about how to do that in German.”
Both Hachtmann and Ebrahim miss distinct phrases and expressions from their native languages. Ebrahim said she often wishes she could say a verse or line of Farsi poetry to express herself, rather than spend time explaining her thoughts or a concept.
“[In Farsi], what you want to say has already been said very nicely in verse,” she said. “You don’t have to scramble for proper words and proper meanings of the words.”
One of Ebrahim’s favorite Farsi poets is Hafiz, who only has one book of poetry but is widely known in Persian culture. She said when children are young, they are taught poetry by Hafiz because it is simple. But because most Farsi words have more than one meaning, she said many scholars come back to Hafiz to discover the deeper meaning behind the simple words.
“The saying goes, ‘If you want to learn Farsi, read Hafiz. Once you master Farsi, then read Hafiz,’” she said. “When you’re reading Hafiz, it is very simple when you are learning the language because he uses very simple words. Once you master the language and come back to read the same book, then you will understand the depth of the meaning of the words that he uses.”
Similarly, something Hachtmann misses the ability to use one German word to describe whole concepts or experiences. For example, in German gemütlichkeit describes a feeling of warmth and friendliness especially found during gloomy winters. When the weather is cold and the sky is gray, Hachtmann describes gemütlichkeit as the feeling of coming back inside from a cold day, lighting candles, making hot chocolate, creating a warm environment to embrace the dreary winter weather.
“There really isn’t a translation,” she said. “We kind of have ‘cozy,’ but gemütlichkeit also includes conversing with people, spending time together and slowing down, and those are all aspects of the word that are not a part of ‘cozy.’ It’s kind of a lifestyle.”
On leather sofas and fold-up chairs, the nine women sit outside their classroom and talk in their native languages while waiting for their teacher to arrive.
Alaa knits in the corner beside a stack of books while Mahasin sits next to her, quietly going over last week’s material. While the women speak softly, they laugh at one another’s jokes and stories from the week before.
Once Carol Leonhardt, a volunteer teacher, walks down the creaky stairs, the women greet her with a kiss on the cheek and pile into the makeshift classroom to take their seats.
Today’s topic: pronouns, dates and the differences between their and there.
These refugee and immigrants come each Friday afternoon to the Good Neighbor Community Center to participate in free English classes for women. The topics range from cooking demonstrations to careers. The classes are run by volunteers and paid coordinators.
The women, whom all know one another, speak at different English levels. While some have been taking English classes for years; others are still mastering the basics.
Leonhardt scans the room and takes roll. Her over-the-shoulder, patchwork bag is overflowing with print outs of language activities, name tags and binders filled with worksheets. She takes out the name tags they have made during a previous class. She hands them out to them one by one as the woman sit back with ownership and pride. As they giggle and admire their name tags, Leonhardt begins the first lesson.
“Today is March 8, 2019,” Leonhardt says to class. “Suhalia, what day is it today?”
Suhalia, an Iraqi woman, confidently recites the date. Alaa, originally from Morocco, looks down at the calendar placed in front of her. She points to a shamrock stamped onto March 17th and looks up to Leonhardt with a questionable look. The teacher explains to the class, in the simplest of terms, what Saint Patrick’s Day is. The room erupts in giggles when Leonhardt mentions the popularity of green beer and leprechauns.
The lesson continues. With a pencil tucked behind her ear, Leonhardt reads short sentences in a clear tone. The women carefully mouth what she says, even emphasizing the question mark at the end of one of the sentences.
“Today it is sunny. Tomorrow it will rain. Do you have an icicle on your house?” they read.
Near the end of the lesson, Leonhardt is adamant they recite the alphabet a few times as extra practice. Over and over again, they write out and sing their ABC’s. Their voices echo throughout the basement as they repeat the 26 letters in unison.
The lesson comes to a pause when Zainab Al-Baaj walks into the room.
“You ladies sound beautiful,” said Al-Baaj, a coordinator for the community center.
By the end of the lesson, it’s tradition for the women and the coordinators and volunteers to serve food and eat together. Without hesitation, a table is transformed into a buffet, and plates are being piled high with Middle Eastern delicacies and treats. While serving her eggplant, zucchini and cabbage stew, Hiyam, one of the older women in the group, says Iraqi women pride themselves on their hospitality.
“We are taught to serve others and want to be known as gracious throughout any community we’re in,” she said.
With stomachs full and conversation quieting, the volunteers and students pack up their Tupperware containers and get ready to leave. However, no one can leave without receiving a few kisses on cheeks. The energy in the room feels warm, like hugging a friend.
When everyone leaves the room to head back upstairs, Leonhardt takes a final scan of the classroom before shutting the door.
The women will be return in a week with their eager questions and homemade delicacies. They’ll gather in this safe place for new and returning students to learn, eat, converse and belong.
Three years ago when Ainoa Chacon was a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln majoring in journalism, she began to notice the obstacles of choosing a writing-based career in her second language.
After her mother married her stepdad, Chacon and her family moved from San Sebastian, Spain, to Nebraska. As a Spanish-native speaker, she chose journalism because she was curious about American society and culture and hoped it would help improve her English.
She didn’t anticipate that journalism would be an unpopular major among international students and that she would be the only ESL student in most of her classes.
“My grammar mistakes make me look dumb because they seem so obvious for my classmates,” she said. “But English grammar doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Most of the students in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications with whom English is their second language are advertising and public relations or broadcasting production majors, which don’t require the same level of writing skills than in journalism, said Andrea Gaghagen, one of the college’s academic advisers.
“We have had students switching from journalism to advertising and public relations since it is the least writing intensive,” she said. “But every major in the college will have two writing classes starting Fall 2019, which might discourage ESL students even more.”
Although the United States is consistently the top destination for international students around the world, with nearly 2,786 students coming to UNL in 2017, some majors are underrepresented in the surge of undergraduates coming from overseas.
STEM majors now represent the largest group of international students. The top two majors are integrated science with 155 students and computer science with 149 students. Finance, another major popular among international students, comes in a close third, with 147 students.
The College of Journalism and Mass Communications had an enrollment of 44 new international students in 2018.
Because writing is the top focus of the major, students who learned English as a second language often don’t have the confidence in themselves to pursue journalism.
“That might be because journalism and broadcasting news are largely focused on writing, and I think that intimidates a lot of English as a second language students,” she said.
This was the case for Selina Zheng, a Chinese student who started her undergrad as a journalism major and switched to advertising and public relations after she realized her English level was not enough to succeed in most journalism courses.
“When I told my friends from other colleges that I wanted to major in journalism, they ruthlessly doubted my choice,” she said. “‘How are you going to compete against your American classmates?’ they asked me, ‘Are you going to be able to find a job back home.’”
Harsh as they sounded, Zheng said her friends had a point.
Journalism majors are expected to network during college to gain links with the media industry and gain work experience.
“If you are intending to stay in an English-speaking country, I think journalism is a good choice because the skills you learn in this major can apply to a lot of different jobs,” Gaghagen said. “But if you are intending back to your home country, it will be better to pursue it in your own language.”
Although the language barrier might affect students who learned English as a second language, communications hurdles also arise when students don’t naturally assimilate with the way Americans communicate with each other.
Junior advertising and public relations major Jiang YanZhu, said that classes in the U.S., especially in the College of Journalism, are very active and students are encouraged to speak up and share their ideas.
“Many students are really fearless to speak up,” she said. “Everyone wants to participate but as a Chinese, this is hard for me because in China people are afraid to say what they think.”
Another advertising and public relations major, Kayla Ng, said that she felt intimated by the participation requirements and critique sessions that were part of most of the classes in her major.
“Critiquing my classmates’ work is not in my culture,” she said. “We are not taught to be so direct and outgoing for participation and voicing out in group projects. It took a full semester to get over the fact that I had to do these things that are out of my comfort zone.”
Yet, she believes that being an international student does not necessarily has to be a disadvantage.
“I wanted to show local people that international students can come with quality work as well and do as well as local students,” said Ng, who is originally from Malaysia.
Chacon also shares this view. She believes that studying journalism has given her writing and interpersonal skills that she wouldn’t have gained if she gave up on this major.
“I have learned to be more open-minded, and I think if diversity and inclusiveness is one of the values that we are taught as future journalists, that should also be reflected in our classroom too,” she said.
While she enjoys being the only international student in her classes, she hopes to meet other ESL students in the future who share her passion for journalism.
“I would love to see more international students in my classes.”