“Everybody ready?!” instructor Julie Collura shouts.
“Ready!” the students shout back.
“The. Title. Of. Today’s. Lesson,” Collura pauses after each word, her lips popping sounds crisply, then smoother and faster as students write, erase, and try again.
“‘The Title of today’s lesson is: ‘I. Heard. It. Through. T-H-R-O-U-G-H. The Grapevine.’ Grapevine is one word. The Title of Today’s lesson is, “I heard it through the grapevine.”
Collura pronounces the sentence, first in sections, then whole. The class repeats. The adults around the table at this free English language class in East County, range in age from 20 to 60. They tap their handwritten words with pencil erasers and fingertips.
They flip through pamphlets displaying native and invasive Oregon plants, and pick out words as if playing a game of Where’s Waldo: butterfly, flower, elderberry.
“What should I do with elderberry?” Delia from Romania asks her neighbor, a smile spread across her face.
Akberet from Eritrea, chuckles. She answers, “You should plant it.” She turns to her neighbor. “What should I do with elderberry?” she asks.
“You should plant it,” Wenke from China answers then turns to Sofia from Mexico and asks the question. Sofia answers and turns to Chandra from Nepal.
The students laugh at the difficulty with which their lips form new words, at their sluggish tongues struggling to speak at a conversational pace. They sometimes sigh, overwhelmed, frustrated. Yet, they return to class, week after week.
Rosaura, who moved to the United States from Guatemala 22 years ago, swats at the air, flustered after a lesson in which she has to identify letters on a page. The V de ‘Vaca’ sounds like B de ‘Burro.’ The A, the I, the E are jumbled.
“I’m scared,’’ she says. “But I want to learn. I never went to school. There’s never been time.”
Every month brings a new theme - from gardening to vaccinations to food allergies. Every session is come-as-you-are; some students were professionals in their home countries, while others never attended school. Some come once a month, others every day.
The classes are free, held during long lunch breaks or after work at East Portland branches of the Multnomah County Library. They’re offered by People-Places-Things and staffed with teachers-in-training and volunteers.
The library hosts classes at Midland and Rockwood libraries as a part of a partnership with People-Places-Things. They complement free English conversation groups offered at six library branches across the county, along with citizenship classes and one-on-one tutoring.
“This is something people have been asking for a long time,” said Lisa Regimbal, adult literacy outreach coordinator for Multnomah County Library. “It’s a good fit for the library. It’s real-world material and for adult learners, it’s easier if the material has relevance.”
Patrik McDade, a former analyst with the Multnomah County Health Department, launched People-Places-Things in 2011. He wanted to offer an English curriculum based on real life.
“I don’t call these English classes. They’re as much about navigating the culture as about conjugating the past tense,” McDade said. “That is the key to changing this country, not changing every non-English speaking person, but nurturing diversity. The whole point is to build bridges between people from different cultures.”
Instructors from People-Places-Things come to the Rockwood Library every weekday at noon and set up in a small study room behind the stacks of Russian literature. In their day jobs they’re students and professionals, retired pastors and teachers.
“This empowers people,” said Joshua Clark, one of the instructors who wants to work full-time teaching ESL. “When you have a brand new learner they can bring a lot of shame. You get it right. You get it wrong. Then here they realize they can make mistakes and if you don’t get something, someone else will show you.”
On a recent Friday afternoon students from China and Mexico gather. Attendance is low this week with the start of the agricultural season, explains Jorge Tapia-Ayala. He’s been coming to the classes every day at noon for two months; his spiral notebook is filled now.
His spoken English is advanced, he is gregarious and laughs aloud and leads fellow students in exercises. He constantly leans over to help his neighbor Estella Piña-Goria.
Piña-Goria is thin, her arms drawn close to her sides, her hair pulled back in a braid. When she speaks, which she does not do out-of-turn, she speaks softly. She is as reserved as Tapia-Ayala is outgoing. After months of learning side-by-side they act like siblings.
Piña-Goria struggles with English, she says, but she keeps coming.
“It’s hard. It’s confusing. There are letters you don’t pronounce,” she said. But “we’re learning to express ourselves.”
Free English Education
Multnomah County Library offers many chances to help residents learn English, including
English Classes: Classes offered through People-Places-Things
Talk Time: an unstructured conversation time
Intercambio: Spanish-English conversation hour
Trao Đổi: Vietnamese-English conversation hour
People-Places-Things offers ESL classes through Multnomah County Libraries and at community nonprofits around the Metro area. Here’s a calendar of classes. English speakers are encouraged to attend.
Multnomah County SUN schools offer free public ESL classes at some of their schools.
The Portland ESL Network maintains a map with a host of English classes, many of them free!