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Learning a New Language

Burke church presents English class for adults.

Marisol Tammaro of Burke remembers well the frustration she felt when she first moved to the United States from Bolivia four years ago, when she first encountered the barrier between herself and the English-speaking world.

"I was feeling so bad, and I was so frustrated with myself, because when I tried to speak to someone I couldn't," said Tammaro, who owns a cleaning business with her husband. Driving by the Church of the Good Shepherd in Burke one day, she saw the advertisement for an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class. Tammaro, whose mother tongue is Spanish, decided to take the class.

Several years later, she sat in a classroom with four other women, discussing the differences between the U.S. justice system and those of Bolivia, China and Korea — in English.

According to founder Aden Riggin, the purpose of the ESOL class at the Episcopal church is to help students learn English they can use.

"The majority of this service is helping people to improve themselves so they can get a better position in life," Riggin said, adding that some former students have gone on to work at the church.

The program began three years ago, Riggin said, when he looked around the Burke community and realized a need existed for language education for adults. The diverse makeup of the area comes from a large immigrant population, many of whom need to learn working skills in English in order to participate in the community, he said.

Riggin went to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which gave him a $10,000 grant to conduct ESOL classes at the church. The first year, he said, 36 students took part in two classes.

Between tuition costs and fund-raising activities such as bake sales and car washes, said Riggin, the ESOL program is now financially independent. All the teachers in the program are volunteers, he said.

Today, the ESOL program consists of three sessions per year in fall, winter and summer, with six classes and about 90 students per session. Students do not have to be members of the parish or even Episcopalians, Riggin said. They receive over 80 hours of English instruction per session, which culminates with a formal graduation ceremony.

"We treat each person with respect and dignity," he said. "These are lawyers, doctors, nurses. They come from all walks of life."

TEACHER BILL STRAIGHT described former students who in their home countries, had been attorneys, engineers and physicists, but who were cooks and painters when they came to the United States. Straight, retired from 34 years in the Navy, taught high-school physics for 10 years. But teaching the fourth-level ESOL class is the "most rewarding" thing he has ever done, he said, and a change from teaching high school.

"The students actually want to learn," said Straight. He and his students, including Tammaro, often get into discussions about relationships, culture and current issues such as Supreme Court nominations or prayer in schools. Sometimes, he said, they go to lunch together after class.

"[The students] learn things that can help them get a job and be part of our culture," said Straight. "I try to give them things that will help them help their children do homework."

Many of the students have already had a few years of English instruction in their home countries, said Straight.

"They already have a pretty good grasp of the grammar rules," he said. "But it throws many of them when I tell them that in English, we have more exceptions than we have rules."

For Tammaro, class discussion is a good way to learn English. "We're learning a lot in here, because when I came I couldn't write or spell well and I got confused with grammar," said Tammaro. "We're learning everything."

For fourth-level student Helen Lee Stewart, who came to the United States from China, pronouncing English words is the hardest part of learning the language. But the class has helped, she said, describing how after her second ESOL class, she wrote an e-mail to her husband. Afterwards he told her that he had already seen an improvement in her English.

Stewart's classmate Young Min Lin said she could not find English classes near her hometown of Bethesda, Md., and began traveling to Burke three days a week to take the class. Occasionally, she brings her 5-year-old daughter, she said.

"Speaking is the most difficult part of English," said Lin. "I can read English better than speaking it."

With any language, speaking is often the biggest challenge, said teacher June Lepthien. To remedy that, she said, she has her second-level English students tell her about their weekends. This usually leads to an entertaining discussion, she said.

"It's just a real pleasure working for [the students]," said Lepthien. "I get so much from them. I'm not sure if it's benefiting me or them more."