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The Number One Skill for Immigrant’s Success: English

Posted on July 13, 2015 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

intlcntrclassPracticing English at Catholic Charities International Center

The premier Spanish-language newspaper “El Diario” turns to Catholic Charities Director of Immigrant and Refugee Services, C. Mario Russell, for regular updates on immigration reform.

In this latest issue of El Diario, Mario takes on the key skill for immigrant success.

By C. Mario Russell

There are so many reasons why immigrants are important. They sustain the diversity of this nation, they create businesses critical for the health of the economy, and they contribute to the wealth and welfare of our society.  But underpinning all this is one vital skill they need in order to make these things happen: the ability to communicate in English.

Immigrant parents need English so they can become involved with their children’s education; according to the National Institutes of Health, the level of a mother’s literacy skills is the most important factor affecting a child’s literacy. Workers need English so they can obtain jobs that pay a living wage; it is no accident that the unemployment rate for adults with low literacy is twice that of literate workers. Entrepreneurs need English so they can navigate the bureaucracy involved in starting their own businesses.  Students need English so they can finish their secondary education and go to college. This education benefits all of us. Each worker with a high school credential generates $324,000 in net benefits for the New York City and will rely less on public benefits and contribute more in taxes.

But what is being done to support immigrants who want to learn English? How are so many individuals with different English learning needs finding help? One progressive program, the Catholic Charities International Center in Manhattan, is designed precisely to meet the challenge of giving culturally, socioeconomically, and linguistically diverse students instruction at their level to achieve the same goal: to learn English and develop a greater understanding of American life.

While the program offers over 40 weekly classes in many levels of English, it offers each student one-one-one coaching “conversation partnerships”, centered on the idea that both instructor and student are in a partnership of equals and that each students learns best by studying with one teacher-partner. This teacher-student partnership allows the newcomer to acquire the language in a one-on-one atmosphere of trust and support.

Recently a student was able to obtain his real estate license after working for months with a teacher preparing for the licensing exam. Another student, a baker in her native country, practiced interview questions for weeks with her partner and was able to obtain a position at a bakery in the Bronx. Some students, because of their legal status, instead focus on bettering the skills they will need once their status is secure. For example, a young man from Guinea recently found a volunteer position with a charitable organization in New York. He hopes one day to work there.

Immigrants in the U.S. will always persevere, but they need access to programs such as ours for their voices truly to be heard.

 Mario Russell is Director of Immigrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities, 80 Maiden Lane NYC. He also teaches immigration law at St. John’s University School of Law.

 Read this now in El Diario

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