Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Esl Programs Boost Students and Businesses

Higher Education: English as a Second Language (ESL) Programs Boost Students and Businesses

For many immigrants in New Jersey (or the children of immigrants), learning English may mean the stark difference between success and failure in many spheres of life. For these and other reasons, New Jersey colleges and universities offer various English as a Second Language (ESL) programs aimed at not only helping students learn the English language, but, if necessary, assisting them with assimilating into American society.

Benefits to Employers

According to educators, the dedication ESL students show is staggering. To place some students' efforts in perspective, one can imagine moving to a foreign country (Japan, for example) while trying to learn that language and perhaps attend an institution of higher education. If one is not Japanese, this thought is likely extraordinarily intimidating. To overcome the inherent challenge, one would need a dedication to learning core Japanese language skills, as well as a desire to understand Japanese culture and customs.

Many ESL students in New Jersey must overcome similar obstacles, even if they have had varying experiences with the United States, or have some English language skills. Dr. Linda Best, professor and chair of the English department at Kean University, Union, notes that students who start with an ESL program and eventually graduate from college have completed an enormous amount of work.

"[This] speaks to their motivation, work ethic, diligence and persistence," she explains. "Those are huge things. Second, it also speaks to the goal they have to enter into professional life. They commit to this 150 percent. I am not reducing by any means traditional college students who get degrees - everyone works hard. But [ESL students] have life-altering experiences [that deal] with identity and motivations. [Their experience] has to do with maintaining ties with the language and culture of their countries, while at the same time broadening themselves to the American experience."

Dr. Best avers that such students bring their work ethics and desires to perform to employers' doorsteps. In addition, they may provide workplaces with global perspectives. For example, Kean University has students from some 32 countries in its ESL classes - and these pupils interact with each other.

Dr. Best explains, "These students sit around the table with students from other countries and [examine how] they interpret events differently. They come to understand and appreciate individual differences. In the workplace, these are huge skills, especially in our changing world with its emphasis on the globalized workplace and globalized communications."

Jacqueline McCafferty, director of the English as a Second Language and Basic Skills at Rowan University at Camden, says employers receive the benefits of bilingualism and biculturalism from ESL students.

Student Heritage

At Union County College's Institute for Intensive English, 85 percent of its ESL students are residents of Union County and New Jersey. Some 15 percent of the students have visas for staying in the United States. Professor Howard Pomann - the institute's director - estimates that the largest population of students is between the ages of 25 and 40, yet others are as young as 18 or as old as 70.

The Institute's 1,700 ESL students come from countries that span the globe. Dr. Pomann has been with the institute since 1978 and remembers a wave of Haitian students in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, a large Russian population impacted his ESL program, followed by Eastern Europeans and a Polish population in the late 1980s. Throughout the 1990s, Pomann recalls seeing high volumes of Central American and Caribbean students. Today, he sees more students from India and West Africa. Overall, he notes that Union County College's ESL student population follows the immigration trends of Elizabeth and the Union County area.

McCafferty, at Rowan University at Camden, also says her student population mirrors that of the surrounding area: most students are Dominican, Puerto Rican or Vietnamese, but - among other nationalities - they may also be Turkish, Russian, Chinese or Korean.

Of the world's 193 countries, a person might guess that most - if not all countries - are represented somewhere in New Jersey's higher education ESL programs. Dr. Minoo Varzegar, director of the program in American Language Studies/ESL at Rutgers-Newark, shares the diversity of her student population: when it comes to languages the students speak, 50 percent of her ESL students have Spanish as their "mother tongue," 13 percent Korean, 7.5 percent Polish, 7.5 per-cent Vietnamese, 7.5 percent Turkish, 5.5 percent Russian, 5.5 percent Portuguese, 2 percent Chinese and 2 percent Thai.

How ESL Programs Work

Given the vast array of student nationalities, a uniting factor for most ESL programs is that they are almost always taught entirely in English. Students are generally assigned a "level": perhaps "beginner" for those who know very little English up to, say, "high-advanced." Each college and university typically has unique ESL training, and some educators are quick to point out that one university might have a basic "survival skills" level, while another university might classify its program as "academic": students prepare, among other goals, to read and write academic papers. The overarching motif is that students progress through levels arld become proficient with the English language.

Union County College's Pomann says, "When we [professors] visit the hospital, we see our students giving us X-rays. And it's very common for us to go to restaurants where they are the managers. We tend to visit local businesses and hear, 'Teacher!', only to turn around and see a student."

He adds, "I think all the faculty here are motivated by the motivation of the students who come here with a lot of obstacles . . . They have families or they've left the connections in their countries and they are working or studying here 12 hours a week . . . Everybody is more motivated to try to help the students really succeed. And in many ways, the school is really a place for them to make [human] connections. If you talk to students, their greatest difficulty is isolation."

There are many ESL success stories. One Union County College student completed ESL programs, earned a degree at Rutgers University and now works for an insurance company. This alumna is also involved with local politics. Many other students who have enrolled in Union County College's ESL programs have progressed onto medical school or become employed in highly-esteemed professions.

How Employers Can Help

Kean University's Dr. Best says that companies hiring employees who don't natively speak English should be aware that a stressful interview process or new job might cause a person to have "the visible signs of ESL." But, she cautions, this may just be indicative of their care and concern about speaking properly. She adds that accents, overall, are not a measure of language proficiency.

Dr. Liza Fiol-Matta, dean of arts and sciences at New Jersey City University, would not want employers to "baby a person," but she nonetheless explains that "business English" is a very specific English, filled with idiomatic expressions used, for instance, in customer care or interaction. Employers might want to reinforce these scenarios, she says.

Overall, however, many educators say their courses teach the nuances of the English language and American culture. Pomann, at Union County College, says, "In terms of teaching the language, we integrate American culture at all levels, teaching about the American government system, the health system and education systems."

Future of the Programs

Pomann believes there will be increased demand for ESL programs, even in a post-9/11 immigration world.

"Obviously, in terms of across New Jersey, we are continuing to try to find ways for students to meet their goals," he says.

Varzegar, at Rutgers-Newark, concludes, "I think that these [ESL programs] should be valued and cherished . . . without the vehicle of the English language, [students] cannot be successful in this society. Whether it is getting a job, making friends, or obtaining a higher education [degree], this is the key to their success: to learn this language as well as they can. [In this way,] they can progress in life no matter what their goals are."

Many New Jersey institutions of higher education stand ready to help students prepare for the wide world of work, regardless of their pupils' English language proficiency level.Higher Education: English as a Second Language (ESL) Programs Boost Students and Businesses

Byline: Saliba, George N Volume: 53 Number: 12 ISSN: 00285560 Publication Date: 12-01-2007 Page: 53 Type: Periodical Language: English Copyright, New Jersey Business & Industry Association Dec 2007



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