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Non-native Speakers Aspire to Learn English

A nonprofit group is teaching English to dozens of people.

"It's your turn," says Ella Fernandez in Spanish across the table to Armida Portillo, who gets up and makes her way past her 8-year-old daughter and around the perimeter of the small, white-walled classroom to a dry erase board at the front.

Her teacher, Bill Melvin, a retired English teacher dressed neatly in a button-up shirt tucked into blue jeans directs her to stand at the head of the room.

"Hello. My name is Armida," Portillo says in clear, slow English, sounding out each syllable to her class as Melvin smiles and nods encouragingly. "I am from El Salvador, I have a big family," she continues, "I coming ..."

"I came," Melvin says.

"I came," she quickly corrects herself, "to the United States in 1985 and I want to learn English. I like to have a teacher for teaching me English, thank you."

She smiles shyly and heads back to her seat as Melvin congratulates her.

"Very good, very good," he says.

PORTILLO IS ONE of eight students who came out on Saturday, May 27 to learn beginner's English at the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center. The students have been coming since the middle of January to attend the Saturday morning, two-hour session of English class put on by the ESL [English as a second language] Volunteers of Northern Virginia non-profit organization.

The class was one of three being held this spring at the Resource Center and the Fairfax Institute in Herndon, where about 30 to 40 students each week come to get lessons in English, according to Melvin.

All but one of the students who attended Melvin's class on May 27 went on to "graduate" from the spring semester of the program last Saturday and received certificates of completion, stating their level of proficiency in English.

Operated by Melvin and three other volunteers, the ESL Volunteers of Northern Virginia program will celebrate its one-year anniversary next month when they open up their 10-week summer semester of classes on June 17.

"We're really more of a charity organization than a non-profit," said Melvin, who pointed out that the administration of the entire organization is composed of four people.

The classes are offered free of charge, with students only needing to purchase $35 worth of books and materials.

"We wanted to offer something to the community ... something that might not be offered to them otherwise," said Melvin. "We're a welcoming town and we wanted these people to feel welcome here."

Melvin is no stranger to the effect that knowledge of English can have on a non-native speaker. He is a five-year veteran of the Peace Corps, where he taught English in southern Africa during the late '70s.

"One of the barriers in connecting with this community is not being able to speak English," Melvin added. "[My students] want to integrate into the community on a broader basis and one of the ways to do that is to learn the language."

Originally established solely at the Resource Center to provide a service they saw as heavily needed in Herndon — a town whose population consists of 36.5 percent foreign-born residents — the ESL Volunteers had to expand to include a class at the Fairfax Institute in Herndon this spring due to an increased number of interested students, Melvin said.

While the majority of their students are Hispanic, Melvin is quick to point out that they are not offering a service only to native Spanish speakers. Since the start of the classes, there have been people attending who speak Russian, Egyptian and Arabic as their original language, he said.

"It's for anyone from any group of people who don't speak English natively," Melvin said. "It just so happens that in Herndon, most of those in demand of the service are Hispanics and Central Americans."

LEARNING ENGLISH is vitally important to all immigrant groups as they struggle to adapt to a foreign environment, said Bautista Ong, a teacher with ESL Volunteers of Northern Virginia who learned English in the Phillipines, his native country, when he was 7-years-old.

"Here in America, whatever you do, language is key," said Bautista. "Whether you're going shopping or working, knowing the language is very important."

"One of the things that you see in immigrants to the United States is that if the first generation is not that successful its because of [not being able to speak the] language," he added. "The main thing we're trying to do is to help them overcome that barrier."

The process of learning the intricacies of the language is not easy for the students.

"Most of the folks who come here for classes work full-time, five or six days a week and they come in here whenever they can," said Genie Williams of Oakton, a teacher with ESL Volunteers of Northern Virginia and a 10-year veteran college English and business professor. "You really have to give them credit for their effort in trying to learn, they come here and devote their Saturday mornings to learning the language."

"It's really important for me to learn English if I want to get a better job so I can earn a little more money," said Estela Barrera, a student of the program who cleans office buildings for a living. "All of the applications for good jobs that you fill out ask you if you can speak English."

"Whatever spare time I have, I'm dedicating to learning English," she added. "I'm going to have to dedicate a lot of time though."

Norma Mendez of Herndon made it out to the Saturday class despite being just two weeks shy of giving birth to her third child.

"All of the businesses that pay well want you to learn English, so I decided to take this class," said Mendez, originally from Puebla, a state 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. "This way in a few years when I go back to Mexico I'll know English and I can get a job working in tourism."