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How Teaching English to Immigrants Changed My World

Through my students, I see what America offers

spinner image illustrated map with patches from Mexico, Bolivia, El Salvado, Taj Mahal, Russia
Illustration by Chris Lyons

The woman with the kind, lined face who cleans the church where I teach once a week is from El Salvador. She has an 11-year-old son who likes to write stories; she hopes he’ll go to college one day. The big, affable man who drove the Lyft I took last week is from Cameroon. He taught himself to speak English by watching TV and listening to the radio; he loves living in America. The woman who works at my local nail salon is Vietnamese; she worries about her brother-in-law, who arrived here two years ago and still can’t speak English and can’t understand what his manager at Home Depot is saying to him, but he works so many hours he doesn’t have time to study.

Until I started teaching English to immigrants five years ago, I knew little about the many immigrants who live in my community. In northern Virginia, where I live, 25 percent of the residents were born in foreign countries (the national average is 14 percent). Immigrants here are from El Salvador, India, Korea, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Russia, Peru, Afghanistan, Mexico and dozens of other countries. Sure, I used to notice the many accents and languages I heard in passing while running errands or standing in line at the motor vehicle department, but I didn’t think about it other than — to be honest — feeling occasionally annoyed when I couldn’t make sense of what someone was saying to me. I feel very differently now.

Volunteering to teach English to immigrants has changed the way I interact with the world, and offered me a deep sense of connection, especially over the many months of the coronavirus pandemic. The immigrants in my community are landscapers, cleaners, manicurists, store clerks, home health aides and more. Many were doctors, teachers or lawyers in their home countries (one student a few years ago was a Uyghar writer and poet, seeking asylum from persecution in China). They all have stories of their own. Now when I meet people whose accents indicate they were born somewhere else, I know they could be one of my students, someone who gave up a career as a physician in Ecuador to become a physician’s assistant here, or a former nurse who works eight-hour shifts at McDonald’s and schedules her lunch breaks so she can take Zoom English class from her car, or someone who had to drop out of English class because she’s taking care of her 4-year-old and her disabled husband while working full time.

“Your English is very good,” is my usual conversation opener, followed by, “How did you learn to speak English so well?” Most people are very willing to talk about their experiences in coming to the U.S. and learning a new language, to talk about where they’re from, the family they’ve left behind, the family they have here. Since I started teaching English to adult immigrants I’ve had meaningful conversations with the man who came to give me an estimate on doing odd jobs (from Honduras), the owner of my local dry cleaner (Vietnam), multiple drivers (from countries including Cameroon, Syria and Guatemala). It has humanized almost every person I meet. It’s turned casual encounters into moments of genuine connection that have enriched my life.

I drive differently now, for instance, because I’ve had so many students tell me about their struggles to understand some road signs or rules, even after months of study to pass their driving tests. Now if a driver ahead of me is a little slow, or turns too carefully, or doesn’t leap into action the second the light turns green, I wait. It could be one of my students, I think. How awful would I feel if I leaned on the horn or zipped around the slow driver in frustration and then saw it was someone I knew? (And yes, I’m not a saint. I still honk and curse on occasion.)

Connecting with immigrants has also changed the way I understand the news. I had a student a few years ago from El Salvador who ran a landscaping business here. He spoke English well but had never gone to school and never had the opportunity to learn to read in his native country. We were reading a simple story about a traffic stop when he asked, “What does it mean, ‘Pull over’?” He held his hand above the desk and said, “This is over.” I explained that when a police officer asks you to “pull over” he wants you to drive your vehicle to the side of the road and stop. And I could see the light bulb flash in this man’s brain as he thought about being told to “pull over” by the police only to not understand what it meant. I’d never thought before about the role language may play in incidents between police officers and people of color in the U.S.; now I think about it whenever I see a story in the news about an interaction gone wrong.

My teaching serves as a constant, humbling reminder of my own privilege, the advantages of living in a country that it can be too easy to grown cynical about. As an icebreaker on the first day of class I sometimes ask students to tell their classmates one thing they love about their home country and one thing they love about the U.S. A few years ago, a young mother from Afghanistan looked confused when I asked one thing she loves about the U.S. “It’s not dangerous here,” she said simply. “My children are safe.”

My grandparents were immigrants, one from Ireland, one from Scotland. I’ve visited the beautiful, desolate village in the western highlands where my grandmother was born, and seen the two-room stone croft where she lived with her parents and eight siblings. My grandmother and almost all her siblings emigrated — some to the U.S., some to Canada — because there was no way to carve a living out of the rocky, wind-swept ground. My grandmother fled hunger and poverty to come here when she was in her 20s, and at least was able to speak the language when she arrived (although Gaelic was her first language and she didn’t learn English until she started school at age 6). Many of my students are fleeing war or gang violence as well as poverty and hunger, and arrive not understanding a word. My grandmother was poor here, too, but she realized her dreams for her own children, who all went to college, found good jobs and sent their own children to college.

Every year my students write paragraphs about their goals, obstacles and solutions. Their dreams are dreams we can all relate to: They want to go to college, send their children to college, get jobs, buy a house or a car. Their obstacles always include speaking English. They see learning English as the way to make their dreams come true.

We live in wary times. We have grown cautious of the stranger — or friend — who might kill us with wayward germs, of the “other” whose political views seem incomprehensible because they clash so radically with our own, of the store clerk with the heavy accent who seems vaguely suspicious. We need connection more than ever and it feels more difficult to find than ever. Thanks to the many immigrants I’ve gotten to know, I’ve found it right here where I live.


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