How Philly’s new immigrants learn to speak English

A combination of field trips, history lessons and talking everything out.

Nativita Forrien, originally from Haiti, is learning English in Philadelphia

Nativita Forrien, originally from Haiti, is learning English in Philadelphia

Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn
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On my first visit to the group of ESL students who meet twice a week on South Broad Street, they laughed at me.

I stood up to introduce myself to the classroom of five (usually six) students from Afghanistan, Guinea, Haiti and Mexico who were gathered around a rectangular table.

I told them my name and that I’m a reporting intern for Billy Penn and a student at Temple University in North Philadelphia. I explained that I was there to see for myself how diverse the class was and how they interact with each other and the instructor.

And then it was silent. I’d spoken too fast and they couldn’t understand a word I’d said.

But my flub turned into one of many teaching moments that night.

“When I’m in class I can understand the people talking,” Hassatou Bah said, “But when I be outside, when you talk to me, I can’t understand you. But here the teacher speak very good.”

Bah arrived in the U.S. from Guinea 10 months ago, and is enrolled in the intermediate level of English Literacy and Civics.

With the help of their teacher, Michael Van Hoy, the class started dissecting my introduction. Hoy, 54, speaks at a moderate speed and often uses hand signals to explain words and concepts to the students. He used this process to reintroduce me.

Hoy uses hand signals to help the class understand.

Hoy uses hand signals to help the class understand.

Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Hoy wrote ‘Billy Penn and ‘William Penn’ on the whiteboard that he uses to jot down words, phrases and topics the class discusses. After a few more questions, the students mostly understood what I’d said.

A few of them know who William Penn is and that his statue is perched atop City Hall. Hoy explained that ‘Billy’ is a nickname for ‘William’, but Billy Penn is the company I work for.

I mentioned I was born in Maryland, so the topic of state slogans came up. Hoy told the class that “Virginia is for Lovers,” which got a lot of chuckles from the students.

Next, the students were partnered up on a speaking exercise from the textbook, and then seamlessly switched over to interactive learning, with Hoy encouraging everyone to speak up.

Mastering English

“I’m really serious about the fact that [they’re] totally trying to learn the language,” Hoy said.

English Literacy and Civics is one of many English as a Second Language programs offered at the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund in Center City. District 1199C is an affiliate of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, and the fund provides programs for healthcare workers, immigrants and others.

Hoy’s class is designed for immigrants who want to work on their English reading, writing and speaking skills. During the 12-week class, Hoy covers topics like U.S. history, government, grammar and preparation for the U.S. naturalization test and workforce tasks.

Program coordinator Arlyn Freed said in an email to Billy Penn that the main purpose of the program is to improve students’ overall “mastery of English” in order to function successfully in society.

The students do everything from discussing topics like Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812 to practicing everyday tasks like filling out forms.

Filling out some forms during class.
Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

While the class completed irregular verb worksheets, Hoy explained that he doesn’t do much teaching during times like this. But he said even though worksheets can be a drag, what the students learn while they fill them out has tremendous value.

“When we’re doing the other things I try to make them as exciting and interesting as possible,” Hoy said.

Election night

One of those exciting things was a mini field trip that happened when I visited the class on Election Day. Hoy decided to go over some election-related words with the students, so written on the whiteboard were the following phrases:

  • polling place
  • voting machine
  • judicial retention
  • registration book
  • election officials
  • district attorney
  • city controller

Through a series of open discussions, the words came to life. Once the students got the definitions down, Hoy led the class in saying each word out loud, to get them comfortable with annunciation and feeling like they’re being heard.

Next stop: the building’s lobby, which happens to also be a polling place. Hoy explained to the students the typical excitement a field trip usually causes, and taught them to cheer and lift their arms up in celebration.

A voting machine operator gave a brief overview of the process before the students practiced with sample ballots.

Nativita is the only student in the class with the right to vote.

Nativita Forrien is the only student in the class with voting rights.

Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Nativita Forrien, one of the two students from Haiti, is the only person in the class who can currently vote. However, one of the goals of the class is to prepare students for the U.S. naturalization test, which gives everyone who passes it the right to vote.

The students

“When I no come at school I miss every one of my friends,” Bah told me. “When I be here, I’m happy.”

After just a few weeks in class, the students are already forming bonds.

Fode Kaba Traore missed class last week. But he showed up prepared with his homework for the Election Day class since another student sent him a photo of the assignment.

“They’re looking out for each other,” Hoy said.

Fode Kaba Traore completing a worksheet during class.

Fode Kaba Traore

Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

It’s not an every-person-for-themselves environment. The students openly acknowledge the areas of English they need to work on and help each other out.

Traore’s first language is French, the official language in his native Guinea. He has trouble pronouncing some English words

“I think [grammar] is more difficult than the pronunciation,” said Jessica Gonzalez, who came to the U.S. three years ago from Mexico. It remains the toughest part of the class for her, but she’s learning a lot about U.S history.

City Hall presentation

Hoy teaches about four different groups of classes in a year. For his previous group of students, he decided he wanted to give the class different scenery for presenting their final speech — the culmination of the 12-week course that gives students a chance to tell their stories in their new language.

They went to Mel Chin’s “Two Me” installation for Monument Lab in the City Hall courtyard, where accessible walkways lead to two pedestals labeled “Me” for people to stand on and pose as living monuments.

“I just assumed the idea was stand up and say your bit to the world,” Hoy said.

A former student reciting his speech in front of the class at City Hall.

A former ESL student reciting his speech in front of the class at City Hall

Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn

The students introduced themselves and told their stories, which Hoy said were universally hopeful and included phrases like “love America” or “love Philadelphia.”

Though his current students will likely deliver their final speeches in the classroom due to weather, Hoy said he hopes to host more offsite speeches in the future at the newly erected Octavius Catto statue.

“I had no idea how powerful it was going to be for me or for them,” he said of the experience. “There was a lot of nerves heading over there. And then it just was pretty astounding for their confidence in English, for their camaraderie.”