Program assists Spanish speakers

Jennifer King

At one of the first interviews she had for a job in the United States, Yessi Aguilar left in tears. In Mexico, she had been a secretary and an elementary school teacher. Here she found that without a GED and a full understanding of the English language, continuing to teach was not an option.

Five years later, life in the United States is still challenging for Aguilar. Although her writing, speaking and comprehension of English have all improved, living in a city where everything is “English only” presents obstacles that can prove difficult to overcome.

While Spanish is widely used across the nation, and the United States does not have an official language, English is treated as the de facto national language and is used as the primary form of communication across the country. As recently as February 2017, bills like the English Language Unity Act have been introduced to Congress in an attempt to recognize English as the official language of the United States.

For immigrants like Aguilar, integrating into a culture so centered around the English language is hard.

“To speak English all the time is like always having a little bit of a headache,” Aguilar said.

When she first came to the United States, Aguilar attended a technical college to help with her language skill but it didn’t help much.

“Talking with people helps me more,” Aguilar said.

But practicing English with other people was intimidating and sometimes embarrassing, she said. For the first couple of years at her job, she barely talked, preferring to keep quiet so that people would think she was mute.

During her driver’s license test, Aguilar remembers being overwhelmingly nervous and scared that she wouldn’t be able to understand the instructions being given to her in English.

“In an environment with people who only speak English, we will never learn,” Aguilar said of herself and other native Spanish speakers.

Molly Kaviar, 25, sits at a dark wooden table in the front room at El Rincon, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Bowling Green, and fishes a piece of paper from a small teal bowl sitting on the table next to her. She peels open the paper and reads the question out loud to the three other people sitting at the table with her. It is Sept. 2 and the third meeting of the ‘intercambio,’ or language exchange group, has just started. This time they are asking and answering assorted questions over chips and salsa.

Besides the waiter and a couple of kitchen staff, they are the only ones in the restaurant. The conversation dips between Spanish and English, sometimes barely covering the Spanish music playing over a speaker in a corner of the otherwise unoccupied room. The sun warms the orange walls of the restaurant, and chips and salsa are replaced by plates of food. A fly flits from person to person, the plates are emptied and eventually taken away, and the conversation continues.

Depending on the questions on the papers picked from the bowl, topics go from ‘What kinds of foods do you like to cook and eat?’ to ‘What kind of animal are you most like?’ and so on until the chime of someone walking in the back door catches the group’s attention and they all turn to see who it is.

Aguilar and her friend Gloria Tejada, 65, are the only native speakers who attend the intercambio that day. They sit together at the far corner of the table. Aguilar explains how Tejada can read and write well in English but leaves the speaking to her. They found out about the intercambio on Facebook and thought they would go together.

“She is my motivator,” Aguilar says of Tejada, in Spanish. “We motivate each other.”

After introductions, the activity is explained and the questions continue, each one revealing a little more about the difficulties each of the women has faced by being a native Spanish speaker in a primarily English speaking country.

At the end of the session, Kaviar makes a list with everyone’s email addresses and promises to send out information about the whereabouts for the next meeting on Oct. 7 from 2-4 p.m.

“I wanted to create a space for people to come and learn,” Kaviar said.

As for future events, Kaviar hopes the group continues to expand.

“I don’t want this group to be dependent on me,” she said. “We’re hopeful that eventually a group or organization will take it on to facilitate it regardless of me being there or not.”

Reporter Jennifer King can be reached at 270-745-2688 or [email protected].