Conversational English class in Monterey Park brings different generations of immigrants together to learn and bond as a community

Every level of English as a Second Language instruction is provided to adult learners at the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library. (Courtesy of Monterey Park)

In a small library study room, a group of Monterey Park residents was discussing a fender bender that struck one of their peer’s car that morning.

Nancy Cheung was walking to her parked car when a driver pulled out of the spot behind her without checking oncoming traffic. That’s when another car struck the driver, who then slammed into Cheung’s back bumper.

“Nancy did not have a good day,” said instructor Daisy Lui, who then asked another student, Tony, to recap what had just happened to Cheung.

Tony had a blank stare and an embarrassed grin buried in his hands. The room erupted in laughter. Lui pressed him to recount the story in his own words and went around the room, asking each person to do the same. Some flashed a similar “deer-in-the-headlights” look when called on. But Lui still pushed them to explain. They repeated the story over and over until everyone could articulate their understanding of what occurred. Everyone in the group was patient and supportive. At one point, people started reenacting the scene using their name cards as the cars to help visualize the accident.

The group was not just trying to determine who was at fault. This discussion was an opportunity for the group of Asian immigrants to practice their conversational English comprehension.

The population in Monterey Park is 67 percent Asian. Over 80 percent are first-generation immigrants, and 57 percent speak their native language at home. Of those who do speak English, over half do not speak it “very well,” and that percentage increases among older residents, according to American FactFinder.

In a time when anti-immigration rhetoric dominates political conversations, Monterey Park embraces its immigrant community. The signs at City Hall, the post office and the library are written in English, Spanish and Mandarin. Residents of all different backgrounds celebrate cultural holidays and festivals like the Lunar New Year Gala.

“We know that we are an immigrant city,” said Jose Garcia, the acting literacy administrator at the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library. “It’s our identity. It’s a positive thing that makes us who we are.”

With these demographics in mind, the city provides resources to help immigrants assimilate into American culture.

One of these resources Garcia oversees is Literacy for All Monterey Park (LAMP). Since 1984, this free program provides basic English literacy and citizenship support to immigrant residents with the help of grants from California Library Literacy Service and the California Department of Education.

The conversational English class meets Sunday afternoons for residents with higher-level English skills. It is lead Lui, a Monterey Park resident and Chinese immigrant who has volunteered with LAMP for over ten years.

The class works to improve how residents speak the language and how to navigate the nuances of American culture and etiquette. The program helps new immigrants acclimate by mitigating the culture shock that some residents experience in their daily lives.

“The challenge with many immigrants who come to Monterey Park is that they are lazy,” said Lui. “They don’t want to learn English or American life. You can get by here without knowing English.”

These “learners,” as Lui called them, know enough English to get by in a community where their native language and culture are widespread. However, Lui said her learners are motivated to master the language.

This class provides English practice they do not otherwise get and creates a supportive community to grow and learn.

Robin Gu, a student from China studying acupuncture and oriental medicine, is new to the class. He wants to improve his speaking so he can get a higher-paying job after school. “This is a smart class, everyone is very friendly, and it gives us a great opportunity to practice and learn,” said Gu.

For some of the older learners, English proficiency means gaining more independence.

“My kids were born here [in the U.S], so they helped me with English when we spoke at home,” said Cheung. As her children grow up, Cheung wants to take the time she never had to improve her speaking. “I want to know things myself; my kids can’t do everything for me.”

Lai Syen emigrated from Taishen, a region in southern China, 39 years ago with her husband and two children. She picked up enough English to get by at her job as a seamstress but never had a formal education. Syen now wants to improve her English so she can take care of bills and finances herself. “I take this class to refresh and get better, to build on what I know already,” said Syen.

The socialization the class provides is an important draw for Ellen Jung. After leaving China in 1985, Jung found a low-paying job to support her family and learned English when she could. Now that she is retired and her husband and mother have passed away, Jung says she suffers from depression. This class pushes her to practice English and be around other people.

The free-flowing structure of the class encourages learners to talk about their daily lives. “I just want them to open their mouths and start the conversation, that’s how they build confidence,” said Lui.

Lui also suggests listening to radio and television programs with simple vocabulary and keeping up with current events to practice comprehension. “I read the newspaper in English every day,” said Jung. “It helps me read faster. Now I can understand every word.”

While newer immigrants tend to sit and listen for the first few classes, Lui said more advanced speakers express their desire to learn about the workplace and ways to communicate better.

“It is important to express yourself clearly and wisely and to be to the point,” said Stephen Chan. Chan is one of the more advanced speakers in the class. He hopes to improve his conversational speaking to become an English tutor himself.

In a city like Monterey Park, it may be easy for immigrants to settle into their comfort zone among people from their native country. Despite their different ages and backgrounds, the students in the conversational English class all share the same drive to challenge themselves to keep learning. In the process of practicing English, they have found a support group where they can share their struggles and a few laughs

“We are like an extended family,” said Lui. “I’m proud of what we are creating.”

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