French Dispense English to Latinas


A group of Spanish-speaking women have spent the past seven weeks learning English from four unlikely teachers.

Through a summer exchange program, 18 Latinas who are current or former clients of a home for battered women and children attended English classes conducted by four French schoolteachers.

On Wednesday, the women gathered at the Interval House shelter for one of their last meetings. The French women brought champagne, their students brought Mexican food, and they all reflected on the class, hugged and exchanged addresses.


Cuca, a former shelter resident and student in the class who brought a tray of handmade tamales and three rice dishes, said the class improved her English skills immensely. (Because of the nature of the shelter, Interval House director Carol Williams asked that the last names of students not be used.)

Cuca’s classmate, Rosa, who took breaks from her job cleaning houses to attend the English class four times a week, agreed.

“I am so appreciative of this program. In these past two months, they have helped me to feel complete and now I want to continue growing,” Rosa said confidently in English.

The four French teachers, Michelle Leporca, Isabelle Carminati, Noelle Payen and Isabelle Liegois, received high marks from their students. All four usually teach children in public schools in northeast France near the Belgian border.

“They’re very nice and I feel comfortable with them, so I’m not embarrassed to ask questions,” Rosa said.

The Latinas, who are either current or former residents of the shelter or clients of its Latino outreach program, said the classes helped their confidence as well as their language skills.


“Some of the women in the program really blossomed and developed more self-esteem,” said Interval House’s Williams. “They actually took to the class more I think because the teachers weren’t native English-speakers.”

The French women were modest about their achievements but said they were pleased by the experience. While here, they learned American slang, some Spanish, and acquired a fondness for Mexican food and margaritas. Carminati decided she wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in France.

“Everybody was so cute. . . . Our host family was so charming,” Payen said.

The exchange program was arranged by La Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle in cooperation with UC Irvine.

The four French women are among nine participating in the program, part of the Student Volunteer Exchange Program launched in January as a joint venture between UCI’s Human Corps Council and La Societe.

Williams said Interval House operators jumped at the chance to participate in the exchange program because they are constantly trying to find creative ways to make ends meet. The women could have answered phones, raised funds or worked with clients, but it seemed more logical to have them teach English, Williams said.