Queens’ foreign tongues seek ESL classes

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Students in Andy McGillicuddy’s English course study authors from all parts of the Western canon, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and O’Henry, and assorted snippets from contemporary music and film.

Yet none of them is a native speaker of English.

McGillicuddy teaches a free class in English for Speakers of Other Languages at the Ridgewood branch of the Queens Library, where 15 students gather twice a week in the basement lecture hall to master the conversational English they are bombarded with every day.

His students hail almost exclusively from South America and Eastern Europe, their native tongues ranging from Spanish to Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian. Some have lived here under six months, others more than 20 years.

Although the city is home to a million more immigrants now than a decade ago, fewer ESOL classes are presently offered to help them assimilate into American society, according to report released last month by the New York Immigration Coalition.

That deficiency is felt in the Queens Library’s ESOL classes, where classes are heavily oversubscribed.

“We turn away as many students as we’re able to register just because of the lack of funds and space,” said library spokeswoman Joanne King.

The problem is especially prevalent in Ridgewood, the report said, where English programs are not keeping pace with the growing influx of immigrants. McGillicuddy’s class was created to supplement the Ridgewood branch’s weekend ESOL course, which could not accommodate the 100 students who regularly show up for registration.

“We have people who hear about it from relatives and friends who are here already, so they pretty much come from off the boat, although it’s probably not a boat anymore,” King said. “They walk in with the library’s address.”

Citywide, library programs account for only 5 percent of free adult ESOL courses, which are also offered by community-based organizations, the Board of Education, and the City University of New York.

According to Bruce Carmel, program manager of the library’s Adult Learner Program, the library takes a “student-centered” approach to language study.

“We teach English in a context,” he said. “We teach people life skills.”

The 15 or so students who meet with McGillicuddy are proficient English speakers, enabling him to expose them to far more than the rudiments of the language — although they still cover their fair share of grammar.

“One of the things that I’m trying to ensure the students get is the love of the language as well as an ability to use it,” McGillicuddy said. “I try to have them appreciate different high languages and low languages, jokes, puns, poetry, the rhythm of the language.”

He does so with a method that embraces the words of Nat King Cole as much as those of Shakespeare.

In a session Friday, McGillicuddy carefully manipulated the pause button on his CD player, allowing the speakers to spit out songs one line at a time so his students could scrawl down the lyrics.

While McGillicuddy gives his students ample practice in conversation, he also takes things a step further. Recently the class studied the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a 14th century poem written in archaic Old English that looks foreign to even native speakers.

“We read it and it’s hard. It seems hardly to resemble English,” McGillicuddy said. “Most of the words we were able to piece together.”

Some students found their formal English training in their homelands to be insufficient once they arrived here. A 30-year-old Romanian immigrant, Anda Ionescu, said she struggled to adapt the British English she learned in high school to the American English spoken on the streets.

“It was hard for me here because in America there are many expressions and new words and other accents than in British English,” she said.

Others did not have the luxury of formal study. Amalia Soszynski, 59, immigrated from Poland 20 years ago and finally chose to enroll in the course to supplement the personal studying she had done to learn English in the first place.

“Now I think I’m ashamed too long and don’t speak good English,” she said. “I’m old, but I want to speak better.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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