English Innovations changes immigrant lives through English language training

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Above image: Policy and Advocacy Director Ada Williams Prince (left) and English Innovations student Aoxiang Liao (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

Aoxiang Liao delivered a five-minute speech, demonstrating her newly acquired ability to speak English. Her audience — including family, friends, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, Seattle City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Richard Conlin, OneAmerica staff members, and more than 100 classmates — witnessed her newfound comfort with the English language at the April 5 graduation ceremony at Seattle City Hall. However, her self-confidence was even more apparent.

Three months ago, Liao, 44, spoke mostly Cantonese and Mandarin. She was self-conscious about her inability to speak English fluently.

“I did not want to go outside or go shopping. I just wanted to stay at home,” said Liao.

She learned at her church about a new English Language Learning (ELL) program.

“I needed to sign up right away. I really wanted this class,” said Liao.

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English Innovations student Aoxiang Liao (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

She told the audience at the graduation ceremony about facing a hard life and living without a job when she first arrived in the United States in 2008. She came from Taishan in China’s Guangdong province.

She now works as a hotel room attendant, and she admitted to her audience, “This class, English Innovations, gave me hope.”

“English helps me at work. I can now talk to my manager,” Liao explained.

OneAmerica, Washington state’s largest immigrant advocacy organization, developed English Innovations. With financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, OneAmerica has been testing this new model, which allows immigrants and refugees like Liao to learn English and learn how to utilize technology.

Students in the class can take their computers home to continue their studies using LiveMocha, an ELL software program, and Skype. Other available programs include Guided Internet, USA Learns, and We Are New York. The notebook computers are equipped with aircards that allow 24-hour Internet access.

“English Innovations provides English instruction and helps close the digital divide,” said Ada Williams Prince, OneAmerica policy director. “Some [English Innovations students] never thought they could use a laptop.”

“We had no idea about the impact of English Innovations on people’s lives. They’re actually helping their children with their homework, which they didn’t before,” said Williams Prince.

Graduates of English Innovations range in age, from 18 to 78, and ethnicities. They come from more than 20 different countries, including the Marshall Islands, Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Japan, and Thailand.

On Liao’s first day of class, she learned how to use her notebook computer. OneAmerica technology coaches, such as Chris Hammersley, lead the classes, each one made up of 25 students.

“We demystify the technology,” he said.

The program also features a community-centered approach. Private-sector partners, who are actively involved, include the Seattle Public Library, Sea-Tac Airport, The Westin Seattle, Tutta Bella Restaurant, and the Red Lion Hotel. OneAmerica volunteers serve as conversation partners for the students.

“Every single site has said they want to do it again,” Williams Prince said. “We need more participation from institutions. Employers need to invest in this. This helps them. What helps an economy is when people are working.”

Aside from the help students receive from local businesses and OneAmerica volunteers, students themselves play a role in helping other students.

“They would turn and help their neighbor. People who could speak better helped those who couldn’t,” said Hammersley, about his students.

“People are motivated to stay in this program and actually do it,” said Williams Prince. “We can adapt [the project] to their jobs, like vocabulary words that have to do with their hotel work.”

There is a growing demand for ELL classes. According to a 2010 report by the Migration Policy Institute, there are 25.2 million limited English proficient individuals, which is 9 percent of the total U.S. population.

“There’s a huge barrier to integration that involves the English language. We wanted to make sure that we were supplementing that piece,” Williams Prince said.

“[Speaking English] enables people to engage in civil society.”

Immigration reform, if passed by Congress, will call for expanded access to ELL by immigrants and refugees, which will be necessary for them to meet the English language requirements for legalization.

As for the future, Liao is interested in becoming a receptionist at an office. She also hopes to volunteer her time by helping other newly arrived immigrants.

“I really like to talk to others,” she said. “If you talk more and more, you get more confident.” (end)

For more information about English Innovations, visit www.weareoneamerica.org/english-innovations.

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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