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Native tongue: more and more immigrants are signing up to improve their command of English.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Audrey Cho, 28, was sitting in front of her 10 students, holding a handout that listed this year's federal holidays. Pointing to an item in February, she asked her class: 'Who is Washington?"

A confusing murmur arose in the accents of Korea, Mexico, Peru and Mongolia, above the faint buzz that emanated from bare light bulbs hanging overhead.

Julio Lamas, a goateed 58-year-old Peruvian, took up his pen with hands that had operated machines that made car brakes all day. Darii Perenlei, a 33-year-old Mongolian sporting a stylish red leather jacket, stared at the handout as though decoding a secret that could change her life.

Finally, someone in the back took a crack at an answer: "February 16th?"

Cho remained patient. "No, it's who, not when," she said thoughtfully, showing no sign of disappointment. "Who is Washington?"

But the answer still proved elusive, so Cho decided to move on. "He's the first president of the United States," she said. "George Washington--you have heard of him, right?"

Learning English may not be easy, but an increasing number of immigrants are trying. All over the city, literacy experts say, they flock to the free or low-cost English programs offered at community schools and nonprofit organizations like this one, Korean American Community Services, based in the Northwest Side's Albany Park neighborhood.

Such programs are part of a network of adult literacy and civics education efforts supported by a fluctuating mix of federal, state and city money.

Officials at the Illinois Community College Board, an umbrella agency for community schools and their affiliated programs statewide, counted about 86,000 students attending their English-as-a-second-language classes in fiscal year 2003, the latest year for which the figures are available; that is a jump from 77,000 in 2001. And, since the mid-1990s, nearly 90,000 immigrants have also taken advantage of English, civics and other programs funded by the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services at the Illinois Department of Human Services.

But experts say the untapped demand is far greater--and growing. According to the U.S. Census, the number of Illinoisans who said they spoke English less than "very well" in 2000 exceeded 1 million, a figure that has grown by nearly 400,000 since 1990.

A segment of this population will soon be served by a new state project that aims to walk immigrants through all the hoops in becoming U.S. citizens--from learning English to passing the citizenship test.

The project, called the New Americans Initiative, was proposed with much fanfare by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in April, and state lawmakers have embraced it. Despite the tight state budget, it was infused with $3 million annually for three years, in addition to the $2 million that already funds similar efforts each year.

The key element of the project is to promote collaboration among the diverse body of schools and nonprofits that currently provide services to immigrants, so that those who study English at community colleges, for example, can be efficiently linked to citizenship classes offered elsewhere, officials say. The state will award grants of $30,000 to $300,000 to organizations that are successfully connecting their programs.

According to a 2003 study by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based policy research group, Illinois has about 340,000 immigrants who are eligible to obtain U.S. citizenship. The project is expected to turn as many as 60,000 of them into citizens within the next three years.

In the long run, advocates say, the project will also prove a boon to others. "In order to become citizens, they will learn what it means to be a productive and engaged citizen," said Lawrence Benito, director of newcomer initiatives at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which will help distribute the project's funds this month. "So we are hoping that, through this program, people would not just create better lives for their families, but also create better lives for the communities that they live in."

To some, the thought of an evening English class for immigrants may evoke memories of "The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N," a collection of humorous stories published in the 1930s by Leonard Q. Ross. Starring Kaplan, an irrepressible European immigrant whose mangled but expressive use of English torments his pedantic teacher, the stories depict anxious native-born Americans doing their best to drum the parts of speech into Kaplans, Mitnicks and Moskowitzs.

But, at Korean American Community Services and many others, teachers themselves are often immigrants. On a recent Tuesday evening, for example, students in a sparsely attended intermediate-level class at the agency were taught by Jihye Kim, 25, who arrived here from South Korea at the age of 11.

"I was once in their shoes, so I know how hard it is to get by not being able to speak the language," said Kim, who teaches there two evenings a week.

Perhaps Kim's slight Korean accent might get picked up by her students, but would it matter? Not in the view of JeeYeun Lee, who as the director of the core services at the agency is in charge of recruiting these teachers. In the end, she says, only communication counts in Chicago's babel of accents.

Cho, who also immigrated from Korea at the age old, knows she's making a difference. "It's an instant gratification for me," she said of helping people move from embarrassed silence to self-expression. "When they walk out of that door, I know they've learned something new."

The goals and potential of immigrants striving to learn English are not easily pigeonholed. The students in Cho's evening class were of all ages and levels of education and had widely varying abilities to speak English, despite all having tested as "beginners."

Perenlei, the Mongolian, has lived in Chicago for two years, working for a Korean food manufacturer with another classmate, a 47-year-old Korean named Chris Yun. Perenlei is a nurse by training, and has not given up her hope of going to college. Yun moved here in search of "better opportunities" for his two children four years ago, and now seeks to make use of the opportunity for himself.

Both Perenlei and Yun know much more English than Jae Choon Ko, 64, who came rushing into the class just minutes after his 12-hour shift at a dry cleaner's, or Lamas, of Peru, who watched his son's prospects of a good education implode when his country's economy went south, taking his job with it. In Chicago, Lamas, a banker in Peru for 20 years, has been working for an auto manufacturer since 1999 and supporting his son, now 25. But he says he wants to get back into banking or find other "administrative work" someday.

Similar stories could be heard from 14 students who were attending Dawn Paskowicz's class at Truman College in Uptown on a recent Wednesday afternoon. To practice, the students, who had only basic English skills, peppered a visitor with questions.

"Why are you here?" one of them wanted to know. Given the answer, all the students diligently looked up the word "reporter" in their dictionaries, at the enthusiastic urging of Paskowicz.

Gulya Murtasina, 35, who arrived here two months ago, volunteered that she was once a TV producer in her native Moscow. True to form, she then followed up with a question of her own: "How much do you make?"

Paskowicz, a native of Wisconsin who has taught English at Truman since 1988, quickly intervened. "In this country, you are not supposed to ask two questions-one about your age and the other about money," she told the class.

Sitting next to Murtasina, Alexandra Romero, 48, was spending her first week in this country. A lawyer in her native Ecuador, she immigrated to Chicago with her husband, who is half American.

Romero says she hopes to continue practicing law once she masters English. In fact, she already has a pretty good idea of what her area of expertise will be, but, in her halting English, she struggled to explain it.

"Every seven seconds in this country," she said, then paused. Instead of finishing her sentence, Romero switched to pantomime: She made a fist with her hand and proceeded to punch her shoulder. "Every seven seconds," she repeated.

Eventually, Paskowicz figured out what she meant: domestic violence. Romero apparently knew the statistic, that a woman in this country is battered every seven seconds.

"Yes," Romero said. "I want lawyer the women."

Bianca Sepulveda helped research this article.

Ellen Cho teaches English to a group of older immigrants at Korean American Community Services. Cho and her sister, Audrey, who also teaches at the agency, have themselves immigrated from South Korea.
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Title Annotation:Keeping Current
Author:Kaneya, Rui
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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