Intersections: It's never too late to tackle ESL

In a simple, bare bones classroom adjacent to a Montrose-area church, a group of adults is learning something many of us take for granted in our every day lives: how to speak English.

It is one of three English-as-a-second-language classes taking place simultaneously here, offered through Glendale Community College's Noncredit Continuing Education division.

In this room, there are Iranian, Egyptian, Korean and Iranian-Armenian immigrants who have started new lives in the U.S., with interesting stories to tell about their homelands and the journey it took to get them here. They meet here four times a week to master the language of their adopted country, some for better career opportunities, others to communicate with their children, and many just to be able to feel a little more comfortable and a little less awkward in simple exchanges at the grocery store.

With the help of their determined instructor, Romina DerBedrossian, they prepare for the tests they will soon take later this month that will determine whether they move to a higher English proficiency class.

Janet Shahijanian emigrated with her family from Iran four years ago. She's taken this class before, and passed, but has now come back to help her daughter achieve the same success. She has found this experience more enjoyable than the first time around, a fact she says, that has to do with DerBedrossian's ability to push them to do their best.

“It's really hard, but it's getting better,” she said in Armenian. “I've always loved learning and I love the language. I want to learn so that when I go out and someone is talking to me, I can understand what they're saying, because I get really upset when I don't know.”

Shahijanian, who was studying to be an accountant in Iran, hopes to graduate from all noncredit ESL classes offered and move toward continuing her career goals in the U.S.

In a city like Los Angeles, with enough ethnic enclaves to make you feel like you're traveling the world without ever leaving it, learning English isn't always a high priority at first.

Young Han, an immigrant from Korea, came to the U.S. 10 years ago, but hadn't made the attempt to get English language instruction until now, fearing that it was too hard.

Now that her son is in kindergarten, however, she wants to learn so that she can communicate with his teachers better, she said.

For husband-and-wife team Helen and Hamo Almasi, who have perfect attendance, pushing themselves to learn like they have in this class wasn't something they would have ever considered back in Iran.

They credit the different atmosphere they feel in the U.S., which they say has encouraged them to move forward and apply themselves in ways they wouldn't have before.

“It's hard to leave 30 years of your life behind and start from scratch at our age,” said Helen Almasi, “but there's a lot to learn here.”

Most of the students in class expect to pass and move to a higher level, and that's in no small part due to DerBedrossian's encouragement and desire to see her students succeed. Having managed Glendale Unified's Community Based English Tutoring (CBET) program for a decade, and an immigrant herself, she relays stories of her family's first experiences in the U.S. and the difficulties they faced.

“I tell them stories about my mom and dad, about how my mom went to the store and needed a plug and asked for 'two things that goes in the wall,'“ she said.

Along with a strict teaching method, the message she's trying to spread is that as long as you're willing to learn, it's OK to make mistakes.

As the class packs up to leave another English lesson, oozing confidence not just about a looming test, but about new lives intertwining with a new language, they smile, and seem to understand that, too.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

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