“Salam.” “Merhaba.” “Anyoung haseyo.” “Guten tag.” “Hola.”
Step into the Bain 50+ Center on a Wednesday morning, and you can hear “hello” in Farsi, Turkish, Korean, German, Spanish and other languages.
Residents from all over the world gather to practice weekly at Howard County’s largest 50+ center to improve their English skills through the center’s English as a Second Language class. The class is one of the programs at the center not limited to senior citizens, and is the county’s only ESL class offered at one of its 50+ centers.
Free to attend and run by volunteer tutors, the classes are aimed at helping residents improve their English through conversations and activities. There is no set curriculum or mandatory attendance for the classes, but organizer Maggie Greif said the program has approximately 30 students.
Center director Linda Ethridge said there has been an increase in class participants in the last few years, largely due to the positive word of mouth that’s been spreading over the last several years about the classes.
June Soon Han said the classes provide a comfortable environment for her to improve her English skills; through the class she’s read an English newspaper for the first time.
“He opened my eyes and my ears,” said Soon of her tutor, Dall Lee, a former ESL teacher at Howard Community College. “I’m not afraid here.”
Lee is one of the program’s nine tutors, many of whom have a background in education. The program is coordinated by Greif, a former elementary school teacher, who said she became involved seven years ago and has stayed active because of the bonds she’s formed with students.
“It’s so much more than just being a tutor, it’s so much more than English. You become a friend,” Greif said. “It’s giving direction to new residents, as somebody who has experience in the community and can empathize and listen, and can understand and just be there.”
The classes put tutors and students together in small groups, allowing for intimate instruction. Activities vary from one table to the next, as tutors choose what activities work best for their students, Greif said. She said that for many of the students, the challenge is in learning to apply the English they know in real life situations, such as when talking on the phone.
While there is no specific training or certification necessary to volunteer as a tutor, Greif said tutors work together to share resources and knowledge. She said tutors with more experience are paired with students in need of more intensive instruction.
At one recent class, students ranged in age from 93 to recent high school graduates. Each table, seated with three to four students and a tutor, was engaged in a different activity: some filled out crossword puzzles to help learn vocabular words for weather, while others read news stories aloud as a group.
Robert Slattery, who said he became involved as a tutor a few months ago and is “having more fun than [I] can count,” said the focus is on engaging everyone in conversation and to open up about their experience adjusting to life in the United States.
Many of the students, such as South Korean native Clara Kim, have lived in the country for many years, but only more recently decided to begin attending classes. Kim, who has lived in the country for 25 years, said she started attending the classes two months ago, in hope of improving her writing skills.
Myungja Yim, who moved to the U.S. from South Korea 32 years ago, attends the classes with her son, Ben. Yim said the classes offer both a chance to improve her English skills and to socialize with friends.
“I want to talk about something and listen,” Yim said. “Korean, English, it doesn’t matter, I just want to talk.”
At Greif’s table during a recent class, she worked with three students who were at their first class, helping them to write their addresses and phone numbers, explaining grammar topics as she went, such as how to use abbreviations.
“You have a lot of courage and spirit to come here and learn something that is totally new to you,” she said to the students.
One of those students was Peter Han, a Korean immigrant who came to the United States in 1970. Han said he decided to attend the class because he wants to be able to talk more with his three granddaughters.
The program keeps students and tutors alike coming back for years.
Liz Pearce, a retired clinical social worker who’s volunteered as a tutor for the past two years, said she finds the program “intellectually and emotionally stimulating,” as well as a way to support those who immigrate to the U.S.
“It amazes me, the courage it takes to move to a new country and relearn everything,” Pearce said.