Their Foreign Language Is English : Education: The South Bay's growing immigrant population has brought a boom in English as a Second Language classes.


Daniel Moreno, a father of eight, works part time loading furniture for a Torrance moving company. A truck driver in his native Mexico, he has been unable to obtain a license to drive an 18-wheeler in the United States because he can't read or write in English.

Myung Whang emigrated from Korea three months ago, settling in Rancho Palos Verdes with an older sister. Whang, a clerk for a publishing company in Korea, speaks almost no English. He works full time at a dry-cleaning shop in Lynwood owned by other Korean immigrants, and he plans to look for a second job.

Imelda Ruvalcaba confined herself to her San Pedro home when she first arrived from Mexico a year ago with her husband and two children. Not knowing any English, shefeared she might not be able to find her way back home, or that somebody might try to talk to her and she would not understand what was being said.

"I wouldn't come out for anything," the 28-year-old Ruvalcaba, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, said in Spanish. "I wouldn't even open the door. . . . I wouldn't go anywhere because I was afraid. Just crossing the street scared me because I didn't understand" the traffic signals.

Ruvalcaba, Whang and Moreno are among dozens of students who recently gathered at the San Pedro Community Adult School for the first class of 12 weeks of English lessons. The students, who range in age from their late teens to late 50s, attend class four nights a week.

The South Bay region, like many other areas in Southern California, is experiencing rapid growth in its immigrant population. As a result, local school officials say, there has been an explosion in the number of students attending such classes, officially dubbed English as a Second Language, or ESL.

Spence McIntyre, principal of the San Pedro Community Adult School, said enrollment in the free ESL classes there has more than doubled in the last eight years. In September of 1983, there were 1,058 ESL students at the school. Today, there are more than 2,500.

Adell Shay, director of the extension program at Los Angeles Harbor College, said enrollment in the college's ESL classes has increased 30% in the past three years. In 1988, there were 1,057 students enrolled in ESL classes. In 1990, enrollment had increased to 1,507.

And at Gardena Community Adult School, enrollment has jumped to 1,200 students, up from 500 students in 1985, said Mona Cain, the school's ESL coordinator.

For many of these students, their lack of English and unfamiliarity with American customs and culture have largely isolated them from society at large and from the jobs that would give them a better economic foothold, school officials said.

On the first night of class, San Pedro teacher David Barrett asked his students why they immigrated to the United States.

The answer was almost unanimous: a better way of life.

But when Barrett asked his students if they had found it, their responses were mixed. Some were unemployed. Others worked sporadically. And all said they felt handicapped because of their lack of English.

Although the students are predominantly Latino, their native countries span the globe: Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Korea, China and Yugoslavia. In their homelands, they were engineers and teachers, housewives and factory workers.

Today, among other occupations, they are waiters and gardeners, house cleaners and construction workers--an amalgam of immigrants who toil by day and study by night.

Ruvalcaba said she was driven to enroll at the San Pedro school by concerns that she would not be able to communicate with anyone in the event of an emergency involving her children.

A talkative person in her native Spanish, she said she also hopes the class will enable her to converse with English-speaking neighbors.

"Just being able to go to the store and buy something and understand what the people are telling you" would help, she said.

Mi Hyon Cha, who emigrated from Korea more than three years ago with her Okinawa-born husband, said she has a 3-year-old son who asks her to read to him from books written in English.

"I can't because I don't know," she said in accented English. "He gets upset to me. He doesn't bring books anymore because he knows mommy don't know."

Cha, 27, has considerable understanding of spoken English, but she has difficulty speaking it.

"It's too much for me sometimes," she said. "I sometimes talk to American people, and they don't understand."

In all, more than 90 students enrolled in Barrett's state-funded class, which is actually a combination of two beginning-level courses. (Another teacher dropped his class several weeks into the semester and it was assigned to Barrett. The new, combined class is held in an auditorium.)

Instruction consists of equal parts survival skills (how to dial 911, for example), vocational preparation (how to fill out a job application) and basic English ("My name is . . . ").

Barrett, who is a teacher in an elementary school by day, said the students in his evening classes are special.

"They are a special group because you've got people who need and want to learn English," Barrett said. "They work all day. Some of them don't have a car. They go everywhere by bus and often have to go a long way. By the time they get here, they haven't eaten dinner. They are tired. The only reason they are sitting here is because they want to learn English."

Even adjusting to a classroom is difficult for some of the students, who have no experience with a school system in any country, Barrett said. Other pupils are outright suspicious of his intent when he asks for student information.

On the first night of class, Barrett, fluent in Spanish, attempted to allay their distrust.

"Yo no soy La Migra ," Barrett quipped. In English: "I am not the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service)."

The comment was greeted with laughter. Later, he simply tells the students: "I want to help you learn English."

Moreno, 52, is taking Barrett's class along with his 24-year-old son, Ismael. Another son is taking a General Educational Development class that Barrett teaches on his own time for half an hour before regularly scheduled night classes.

Moreno, born and raised in Mexico City, said he settled in San Pedro when he immigrated eight years ago because he had a cousin who lived in the area. Through the years, his wife and children joined him, a few at a time. His reason for going to school is basic economics.

"If you want to make money, you have to speak English," Moreno said in Spanish. "If you want to advance, you have to speak English. It's the universal language of this country."

For example, Moreno said, even if he were able to obtain the license necessary to drive an 18-wheeler, it might not do him much good. Few employers would want to hire him if he spoke no English. What would he do, he asks, if he were delivering goods but couldn't understand anyone once he reached his destination?

Whang, 34, who moved to the United States from Seoul, Korea, with his wife and their 11-year-old son, said his life here has been "so-so" thus far, mostly because he has not progressed much in English.

His sister, Judy Kim, who emigrated from Korea 16 years ago, attended the first class with her brother to help him get acclimated. Despite working hard in Korea, she said, Whang was unable to make enough money to buy a home there.

In the United States, she said, he has many opportunities not available in Korea. But Kim, who owns her own men's retail clothing business, knows that success does not come easily.

"I worked hard for five or six years, almost no sleep," Kim said. "But when I make money, I don't have to do that anymore. I have house, I have business, I have a good life."

Whang's dreams, she said, are the same. He will never return to Korea.

Ruvalcaba's husband, who works odd jobs in construction in Rancho Palos Verdes, has lived in the United States 10 years. He brought his wife and children to San Pedro once he obtained citizenship through the amnesty provisions contained in the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Ruvalcaba owned a modest beauty salon in Mexico. Her goal now is to learn enough English to obtain a beautician's license.

But first, said teacher Barrett, Ruvalcaba and her classmates must acculturate themselves to the United States.

To that end, he outlines what he calls a "survival plan" that includes teaching the students how to shop or, for that matter, talk shop.

"They pretty much go to (stores) that are ethnic mom-and-pop kind of places where the prices are higher," Barrett said. "What I do is say, 'If you just knew the words for peas and carrots, you could be saving a lot of money.' They get the idea pretty soon."

In addition to drills including the word chalkboard, the students also learn time clock, machine and a useful phrase, Am I done now?

After a recent class, Ismael Moreno says, Barrett helped him to learn the English terms for the tools he uses as a house painter.

Barrett sees such practical skills as a first step on the road to economic improvement for his students.

"My goals," he says, "are to help them to be able to develop their own skills to be more than a car washer or dish washer."

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