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Finding a new voice

Two Tualatin mothers are working hard to grasp the English language
by: Jaime Valdez, KNOWING THE LANGUAGE — Edith Sanchez, of Tigard, watches her youngest daughter Sheyla, 6, read as her oldest daughter Mayte, 12, works on math homework. Sanchez is taking English language classes at the Tualatin Resource Center. She wants to be able to look over her children’s schoolwork.

TUALATIN - The feeling of being watched in public keeps Dina Martinez, of Tualatin, and Edith Sanchez, of Tigard, quiet most of the time.

They're afraid of making a mistake. They're afraid of the arched eyebrows or the grumbles that follow when they begin to speak and their Spanish accents are exposed.

'When I talk, I'm never sure whether I'm saying the correct sentence - always not sure,' Martinez said.

Martinez seldom leaves her apartment. The stay-at-home mother of two doesn't like to venture out into the world. She waits for her husband to come home from work, and they go grocery shopping together.

A call from a stranger at Sanchez's house is answered by her daughter. Yes, her mother is home, the pre-teen says, but no she can't come to the phone. Her mother doesn't speak English.

'(This) is very important,' Sanchez said of her recent enrollment into an English language class at the Tualatin Resource Center.

'I need English,' Sanchez admits.

In 2000, more than 1.1 million adults were enrolled in federally funded English as a second language programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. That number does not include adults enrolled in nonfederally funded ESL programs.

And the number of adults in ESL programs nationwide is steadily growing, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Joan Johnson, an English language teacher, is amazed by the national talk bashing immigrants for not learning English.

'It's not that easy to find English-speaking classes,' Johnson said, noting the limited availability, space and sometimes expensive costs associated with such classes.

The Tualatin Resource Center, where Johnson is a volunteer teacher, offers two English-language classes. The cost is free or $1 a session.

The classes, which receive no federal funding, are full, and the center gets a lot of calls asking for more English-language classes, said center Director Catherine West. The center would love to offer more classes, West added, if more people would volunteer to teach the classes.

'In Tualatin, I think this is it for adults learning English,' Johnson added.

Martinez and Sanchez at times speak broken English. During an interview they talked slowly and drew their eyes up and to the left as they tried to remember the words and the correct tense for verbs. Sanchez has an English-language book that she used in the beginning to learn English. But Martinez and Sanchez get most of their exposure to English at home watching television.

Martinez, 27, has lived in Tualatin for five months and in the United States for 12 years. She is scared of discrimination.

'It's worse now than it was before,' Martinez said, referring to the recent peak in immigration issues. Martinez recalls situations where neighbors and passersby made her feel like an outsider with their facial expressions and sometimes their hurtful comments.

Both Martinez and Sanchez admit they are reluctant and even afraid to speak English outside their homes. They are afraid of making mistakes in public where native English speakers will not be sympathetic to their attempts at speaking a second language.

In class, they are not afraid, Johnson said.

'Here, if something is not correct, the teacher is here,' Sanchez said, adding that the classes at the Tualatin Resource Center are giving her confidence in her ability to speak English.

Martinez said that the class has sparked her curiosity and an interest in learning English.

For Martinez and Sanchez, the pressure and the motivation to learn English is strong but not because of immigration or employment issues. No, these mothers are more concerned about their children who are enrolled in schools where English is a necessity.

'I need to (be able to) talk to the teacher of my son. When I call the teacher or the main office, I need to be able to talk,' said Martinez, who has a 6-year-old boy who started kindergarten this year.

Sanchez said that her daughters are speaking so much English that they have a hard time remembering Spanish now. At home Sanchez's three daughters - ages 12, 10 and 6 - chatter away in English often times leaving their mother with a look of wonder.

'It's for my daughter,' Sanchez said of her determination to learn the language. 'I need to know who is her friend. I need to help her with her homework.'