It’s 10 a.m. as students start arriving at the bright classroom in the Multicultural Community Center on Birge Street. Soon, the room is filled with women from Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, and Guatemala — all of them ready to take on the challenge of learning the language of their new community.
Some of the students have been in class since March. Others began just two weeks ago. Although they are grouped together in the beginner class, they represent a range of abilities, even in their first languages. Two of the women, including a 78-year-old grandmother, never went to school or learned to read and write in any language.
The class starts, and the challenge begins. Teacher Gloria Cristelli shows students various objects and says the name of each. “Leaf,” “yellow,” “orange,” she enunciates, tying the lesson to the season outside. Some students repeat after Cristelli. Others try to figure out these strange, new sounds.
While some seem to understand what Cristelli is saying, others, including a mother and daughter, struggle with the words on the board. The mother tries to copy the symbols, which don’t have much meaning for her. The daughter, a lawyer, shows frustration at not being able to follow the teacher.
Although Cristelli speaks Spanish, she does not use it as it would not be fair to the students who speak Dari, Pashtu, Russian or Ukrainian.
This class session focuses on sound differentiation. Cristelli uses “pin,” “pen,” and “pan” as examples. The slight pronunciation difference is difficult for the students to hear as Cristelli repeats and emphasizes each word.
Cristelli then asks each student to go to a table and pick up a pen, two pins or a pan. There is confusion as some try all three before choosing the correct item. A look of relief illuminates their faces when finally, perhaps by process of elimination, they get the right object. But it is difficult for Cristelli to know if they really hear the sound difference.
“I can detect a lack of understanding by a blank look,” Cristelli says later. After many tries, some of the students are successful at distinguishing the subtle differences between the words.
A multilingual, multicultural classroom represents a challenge for any teacher, but it’s not unusual for teachers of English as a second language. Cristelli recalls there were at least six different nationalities represented in a class of about 10 students that she taught in Taipei.
“Having different nationalities is actually a benefit more than a challenge,” she said. “The language learners get to have contact with and experience others from beyond their own linguistic limitations, their own worlds. They see that others have challenges that might not be the same as theirs because the other person’s language may have different sounds. And they encounter new sounds that were previously nonexistent for them. They can see that others also have to overcome sound barriers and cultural differences.”
But Cristelli said the cultural differences could also present some challenges. One norm among conservative Afghan communities is the separation of men and women in different classrooms. This means there are not enough teachers for separate classes, and consequently, some men at the beginner level get fewer class hours.
Outside of the Multicultural Community Center, Brattleboro has become these learners’ laboratory. Before they return home, where they re-enter their own cultural and linguistic worlds, they must attempt to express their needs and wants, whether at a store, their child’s school, or asking for directions. Especially for beginning language learners, this can be a real challenge. Some rely on husbands, friends or classmates, but often they must navigate a strange language and an unfamiliar community alone.
Teachers from SIT and World Learning understand the importance of using the local environment as their most important learning lab. For as long as SIT has been here, Brattleboro has served as a crucial resource for international students — the best place for them to practice their English in real life.
SIT teachers use multiple techniques to enhance the role of the community by assigning tasks, such as interviewing shop owners and talking to customers at a store or diners at a restaurant. These techniques are part of the experiential learning activities used today in all World Learning and SIT programs across the globe. For example, a U.S. undergraduate student studying abroad on an SIT program in Nepal may be dropped at a shop in Kathmandu and tasked with making their way back to the learning center, which may require asking for directions and navigating a bus or taxi. This experience of learning by doing is central to the SIT educational process, especially for learning a new language and culture.
Many of the first refugees to arrive in Brattleboro in January now speak enough English to hold down jobs. This is thanks not only to the English classes provided by SIT faculty and emeriti on our campus but also to the innovative community resettlement partnership being piloted here in Brattleboro, which brings the refugees into close contact with community co-sponsors as soon as they arrive. Many of the refugees continue to improve their language skills in the classes that Cristelli and other World Learning instructors now teach at the center.
A less tangible but equally important benefit for all of us is the multicultural dimension these new Vermonters are once again bringing to our community.
Back on Birge Street, during my visit, I noticed two Afghan mothers sitting at the back of the classroom with their young children. Although there were volunteers at the center to watch the children during class, the little ones wanted to be with their mothers. I could hear the older child repeating words while he snacked on pistachios. For him, there was no difference between the sounds of his mother tongue and these foreign sounds. The children have not learned to label the sounds Dari or English. To them, it is just language — one that opens a gateway to a bright, new future.