“Intercambio” gives English speakers a chance to converse in Spanish
Antonio Rodriguez came to Gunnison for the work, he says, not the weather. “No me gusta Gunnison,” he says with a laugh. “It’s too cold.”
But he likes the English literacy classes held on Monday and Wednesday evenings at Gunnison Community School because it gives him a chance to bone up on his language skills.
Rodriguez, who is a rancher from the Mexican state of Jalisco, has been in Gunnison just four months, but his English is surprisingly good. “I started learning in middle school,” he says.
Rodriguez’s English skills are the exception compared to most of his colleagues in the Gunnison County’s literacy program, however. Gunnison County Literacy Action program Director Paul Duba says that many of the 140 students who come to class know little or no English. But he says he’s impressed by their desire to learn.
“It takes a lot of effort to drop everything you’re doing to come learn English,” he says.
Jose Gonzales is a case to point. After spending all day setting tile in Crested Butte, Gonzales hustled to the bus in order to make it in time for his beginning English class. And he’s clearly enjoying the class taught by Western State College professor Karen Hausdoerffer.
“Es muy bueno,” he says of the class while he arranges cut-out words into a legible sentence.
Gonzales says he also moved to Gunnison for the money he can make in his trade. Still, he says he misses the family he left in Cardenas, Mexico. “Estoy solo,” he says.
Fortunately, here in the English literacy class, he has lots of compatriots with which to share the challenges of a foreign culture.
Duba says the program has been greatly enhanced by the “intercambio” element that instructor Candy Sparks introduced this year. The idea is that students from Western State College’s extended studies Spanish class partner with native Spanish speakers in a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Intercambio is brand new this January,” he says.
After practicing English and Spanish in different classrooms, the language students meet for the last half-hour of class to practice together.
For student Katherine Haase, the intercambio portion of her class is the best part. “You know it’s really fun to try to communicate with the Spanish speakers,” she says. “We’re not just learning simple sentences but having practical conversations.”
Haase says she was inspired to take the extended studies class because her job at the Gunnison County courthouse puts her in contact with a lot of Spanish speakers. “I asked around the office, and I found no one was bilingual,” she says.
Haase says she doesn’t feel intimidated because the class is full of other adult beginning-Spanish speakers like herself. She credits her instructor, Karen Immerso for making the class exciting. “She just started speaking Spanish to us right from the beginning and you had to really pay attention to understand,” she says.
Duba says the county’s literacy program has been around for over ten years, but lately it has taken off. He thinks it’s partly due to an influx of immigrants. But he says it’s also because the program has matured enough to provide a wide variety of community needs and therefore people are telling their friends and neighbors to get involved.
“The students are just coming out of the woodwork,” he says.
Because of the heightened interest, Duba says the program now has three teachers who teach three different levels of English in Gunnison. The program also offers classes at the same time—Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m.—at the library in Crested Butte.
Joe Burgess, who teaches the intermediate English section, says he couldn’t be happier. “I absolutely, completely, totally love it,” he says.
And Burgess says his students aren’t the only ones who benefit. “The cross-cultural experience is really enriching for me,” he says. “Plus, I feel I’m doing something important for my students,” he adds.
The literacy program, which is funded by the Colorado Department of Education, local governments and private grants, also has a program for the children of non-English speakers.
“We want people to bring their children,” Duba says.
Bilingual 12-year-old Miriam Guardado, says she feels comfortable speaking both languages even though she often speaks Spanish with her parents. “But I write better in English,” she says.
Duba says the program targets children in grades one through five. “It’s all part of a family literacy program,” he says.
The goal, says Duba, is to enable parents by giving them the tools to help their children excel in school. “We give parents the skills to support language acquisition for their children,” he says.
According to Duba, language acquisition is a key element in providing strength to communities. “If your employee can speak English, he’s going to be a better employee. If your tenant speaks English she’s going to be a better tenant. If your friend can communicate with you, he’s going to be a better friend,” Duba says.
During the intercambio part of the class, the rancher from Jalisco finds himself speaking more English than Spanish to the gringo students from the Western State College extended studies class. But that’s okay with Rodriguez. After all, he says you never know who you’ll meet in such an exchange. “Tal vez yo encuentre el amor. “Maybe I’ll find love,” he says.
For more information contact the Gunnison County Multi-Cultural Resource office at www.gunnisoncounty.org (Health and Human Services Dept.)