Bond is Words

P eople come to New Haven from all corners of the globe. Some are academics (or families of academics), here to teach or research. Some are refugees or people who have immigrated to join relatives here. Backgrounds as different as can be boil down to a common problem: communicating with a new community. Some homegrown New Haveners, too, have trouble with the nuances of their native tongue.

Literacy Volunteers, an organization with offices in New Haven, Meriden and Shelton, knows that English isn’t as easy as A-B-C. Yet it’s “very important for people to be literate in this very literate world,” notes Sarah Flynn, program manager for the nonprofit’s Basic Literacy track, which focuses on Americans who, for one reason or another, haven’t gotten all the way there yet.

LV’s separate English as a Second Language (ESL) track focuses on non-native speakers, generally from other countries. ESL program manager Meghen Fitzgibbons says ESL students represent some 65 nations, and that it’s not uncommon to see a different country represented by each individual in a class. Which sounds like it could be chaos, until you remember that many countries speak similar languages. Most ESL students here are from Spanish-speaking places, Fitzgibbons says.

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Enrollment is rolling, so classes evolve and develop throughout ten-week sessions. In this way, it’s a “really fertile environment for learning, not just language,” but also about the rest of the world. Students engage each other and their tutors, bond and “start to build community,” says Fitzgibbons, by telling stories about back home, assimilating to life here in America and commiserating over the challenges of it all.

The Basic Literacy classes, too, are “very diverse,” Flynn says, despite her program being around 1/3 the size of the ESL side. Some American students join with the intention of achieving their GED while others are in retirement and, now that their family responsibilities are lighter, can finally focus on themselves. Unfortunately, says Flynn, there is a “stigma” around the literacy issues that many Americans face and students sometimes keep their involvement with LV a secret from their families and friends.

Flynn says the classes aren’t “strict”—in other words, aren’t about lecturing students into having a better grasp of English, a misconception she fears keeps new students from joining up. Classes are small, and she describes the process as being closer to mentoring. There’s an emphasis on a positive, “safe” experience for students, in part because word of mouth is primarily how LV attracts newcomers, and if existing students are happy with their tutors and their progress, they’re more likely to talk about LV with others who would benefit.

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Making that progress more meaningful is LV’s habit of encouraging students to identify specific goals that language training will help them achieve. For instance, if a student’s goal is to receive their driver’s license, then related terminology is included by the tutor to help facilitate that. The approach is straightforward: by “taking those goals and breaking them down” in small classroom settings, students are able to show notable improvement in the areas they feel they need it most.

Each spring, efforts culminate with “Hear Our Voices,” a collection of writing from the students of ESL and Basic Literacy classes. There are typically over 100 entries ranging from haiku poems from the beginners to “more detailed stories” about life, work and classroom experiences from the more advanced. A public reading of the same name is then held and tutors introduce students they’ve worked with up on stage. “It’s really powerful,” says Fitzgibbons, to see students gain the confidence to read their own words in front of a crowd.

Building confidence, of course, is huge. Student Tichanop Jaruchaiyakul says many students “try to not be wrong” to such an extent that it keeps them from progressing. Her instructor, Maureen Gaffney, frees up some headspace to make mistakes by pointing out that English “is not logical.” If it were, words like ‘arch’ and ‘architecture,’ and countless others presenting contradictory rules, wouldn’t so easily cast doubt on each others’ pronunciations for new learners.

A seasoned volunteer and member of the LV team for nearly two years, Gaffney says her students are “sweet, very respectful—just lovely.” Reasons for tutoring are as diverse as the reasons for being tutored. Co­-tutor Lindsey Norton, for instance, sees it as a good way to pay forward the kindness that was shown to her while she spent time abroad in Spain.

For his part, tutor Matt Norton says he’s impressed with how “dedicated” his students are and how much they “want to learn.” Jaruchaiyakul, sending love the other way, expresses gratitude about how committed LV’s instructors are.

In terms of devotion to the mission, it seems, the people brought together by Literacy Volunteers are already speaking the same language.

Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven
4 Science Park, New Haven (map)
(203) ­776­-5899

Written and photographed by Jared Emerling.

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Jared Emerling is a New Haven resident with a BA in literature from SCSU. Until recently he worked as the manager of Meat&Co and 116 Crown in the 9th Square. He loves the biographies and inventions of Nikola Tesla.

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