New English classes to open doors for Sikh women

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Depending on the street or neighborhood in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, any tongue from Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi or English can be heard coming from men, women and children walking along the street or standing in front of shops.

English is the only language the communities have in common because it is used by school teachers, the police and fire departments, and city offices. So if an immigrant is unable to speak English, he or she would be cut off from the outside world, unable to shop, go to the bank or even order in delivery food.

This is happening to Sikh women from the Punjab in Richmond Hill’s Indian community, where many of them who have lived in Queens for more than six years are still unable to speak English because of cultural reasons, a local official said.

“The women who need to learn English are mostly housewives who never really leave the house,” said Democratic 25th Assembly District Leader Uma Sengupta, who decided to start English classes for Sikh women at the Baba Makhan Sikh Center in Richmond Hill. “These ladies are very shy and do not want to learn in normal classes, they want to start slowly.”

Sengupta said the Sikh women, because of their religion, are usually separated from men and are not used to being in mixed environments. She said any class targeting these women had to be in a closed environment.

“I want to give (the ladies) some self-confidence and mental strength,” she said. “I want to break the barriers.”

More than 40 Sikh women have signed up for the course, which begins Friday, said Sumita Dosamantes, the teacher who also works for the city Department of Education’s English Language Learners and Parent Outreach office. The class is free and is tentatively planned to be held on a weekly basis at the Sikh Center, said Dosamantes, a certified English as a Second Language teacher.

“I think my focus in the course will be for the students to begin functioning in English,” she said. “(The students) will learn lifestyle or survival English, which will make them more self-sufficient.”

Dosamantes, who lives in Bellerose, said the enrolled students will first be assessed for their English language abilities, then be divided into groups where each will learn at her own level.

She said the classes will be more of a social setting rather than a formal class structure because the women already know each other through their membership at the Sikh Center.

“Basically, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn or practice English in a very comfortable setting,” she said. “The students will try out the language in a real way.”

Dosamantes said the class was formed in response to a request from the Sikh women in the Richmond Hill community.

Sikhism was founded more than 500 years ago and today claims more than 20 million followers worldwide, a Sikh Web site states. The religion began in Northern India in 1469 and claims women and men as equals.

Both Sengupta and Dosamantes said the women, who are educated and comfortable with their native language of Punjabi, are unable to participate in events such as parent-teacher night at schools, supermarket shopping, or helping their children with homework. Sengupta said some women are frustrated that their children come home and ask them why they cannot speak English.

“These women may be too timid or shy and we want them to overcome that,” Dosamantes said. “There will be many opportunities for (the women) to talk to one another and read, write and speak English.”

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Updated 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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