What was your level of English when you came to the US?
Mrs. J: “I was a translator. So I’m not saying my English is the best, but I [could] manage at that time. And I did well, I think.
“Most of us [Iraqis] speak English, because English is the second language of my country. Most of the Iraqis who came through Catholic Charities… speak English. Not very well, but they can learn enough to manage their daily life. There was one or two families… with very poor English, and we try to help them, I help them a lot. Another family who speaks English well, they help them.
“One of the things that Catholic Charities provides is English classes…The teachers came from CPCC, which is the community college in Charlotte to teach us
Luna: “I think in terms of language barrier, it was… more colloquial… than formal English. Like, at least in the Middle East, they do teach you English as a second language. So you’re, you know, you’re brought up learning both languages. My mom spoke English, right? A lot of language barrier was colloquial… like phrases that… you hear in English, but don’t translate the same way backwards… Also [learning] the southern accent…”
Mrs. J: “American accent is a little different than British accent that we learned. And you speak very fast. So I had to say, “Excuse me, would you please repeat that,” because they speak so fast…”
“One of the things [we learned before coming to the US was] do not answer any question without ask[ing]… “Will you tell me or will you help me to understand it?” Because… America is a multicultural country, and it’s not a shame to tell people, “I don’t understand you.”
America is a multicultural country, and it’s not a shame to tell people, ‘I don’t understand you.’
“…And it takes me a while… literally two years… After that, [it] was not bad. I mean, a lot of learning the language is not easy. It’s not what you see in the books. You learn from… your teacher… it’s how you practice it and… how many hours you practice it… You need to watch a lot of movies or anything to learn the language… I was in Iraq and… I used to be very good in English, my grades [were] perfect in English as a language, because my teacher was Iraqi. She speaks the same language I’m speaking… In Iraq, we don’t know what’s the difference—we know “box” and “books”. But when we say it, we… call them “books” not “box”… because the teachers did not even know… the difference.”
Luna: “Yeah in terms of language barrier… I think, at least for us, like, as the three kids, was also different… Anmar my older brother spoke English… okay, not a ton… I spoke maybe a total of, like, four words, and my younger brother was three years old, so he only spoke Arabic at that point… My first five months in school… I would go to school and not understand anything they were saying. And it’s—it’s the most bizarre experience. And I just was thinking about it the other day, like, I would go to class and I would sit there for seven hours, and… people would say things to me, and I had no idea what they were saying. And the teacher would say something, and I had no idea what she was saying. And I did that every single day. That’s really depressing.”
How was your experience learning English at school?
Mrs. J: “I remember Luna was very excited to go to the school the first day. She did not even want to sleep because she just—just want to go to school to see these American schools… Then she came back very sad because she said, “Mom, everybody—everyone in the school understand what the teachers say except me. If the teacher told us to go to recess, I don’t know what she’s [saying].”
“It takes her a while, like almost a month. She was crying every day because she doesn’t understand the teacher. I remember when—when I sit with [her] at night she was crying. She doesn’t want to go to school. And I said, “Luna, let’s count how many words you know in English.” And we count every word, like 1, 2, 3. And we counted… 300 words, but it was very simple words for a second grade child. So it was like, “Luna… you’re good at English. English language is only 500 words and you already know 300…” This makes her confident [a] little bit.”
And we count every word, like 1, 2, 3. And we counted… 300 words, but it was very simple words for a second grade child.
Luna: “The irony of all this situation is that… all of the people in my school were immigrants… but then they have been there for many years before me, and so they spoke English, or at least had more knowledge than I did. And so, even though I saw them in my neighborhood, there was no way we were gonna communicate in or out of school because… we didn’t speak the same language. So that was—it was really tough for the first few months, and I don’t feel like I really started to learn English until I started going to Catholic school… Nothing against the teacher at the public school, but she was also completely overworked. She had so many students, and there’s only so much you can do… [But my] teacher at the Catholic school—she had the time and the attention to focus on only me because I was the only one who needed help like that. So she was the one who pushed me to really learn it and read way more books than everyone else was reading, and write more, and do as much spelling and grammar and rules and phonetics and whatever it was at a really rapid pace to catch me up with my classmates. And so by the end of—I started in third grade—by the end of third grade, I was speaking just like all my other classmates, and it was not a problem.”
Mrs. J: “And [in] the fifth grade she got the… presidential award.”
Is there anything you wish the school could have done differently to help you learn English?
Luna: “Honestly, I know that some people had translators… Not at my school… I’ve heard of other people who had translators that spoke their language and went to school with them, which I thought would have been helpful. But—I really can’t put much blame on them just because it was an overcrowded, populated area where—the teachers didn’t have the funds or the proper education on how to help so many people who didn’t know the language… I think that’s more of a structural issue in general but… it would have been helpful to have someone or anyone really that spoke the same language as me. Even another student who could have helped me out, but no… there was nothing you could do. You just kind of push through… I was younger, so it was easy to pick up on a language and hearing things being said to me over and over again, and I would come and ask Mom and learn from whoever was around.”
I was younger, so it was easy to pick up on a language and hearing things being said to me over and over again, and I would come and ask Mom and learn from whoever was around.
Mrs. J: “Actually, Luna was a—she still [is] a good reader. She would read all the time, so she learned the language fast… Everyday she’d bring, like, five books from the library—five, six books, small books, children’s books, but still. She never watched TV, she was just reading. Then, I remember one of the Catholic Charity told us that you have to watch—even the big people, the adult—to watch cartoons because cartoon people, characters in cartoons, they speak slowly. Let the kids understand. And cartoon is very good, like, a very good thing to learn English from, not movies.”
Luna: “I don’t know if you guys know the PBS network? Like PBS Kids? There’s the kids channel. Anyway, we didn’t have cable so we’d only have satellite TV. And the only, like, cartoon channel was PBS Kids. And a lot of it is made to be educational… And so we would have subtitles on and so you would—they would help you learn the alphabet and, like, words and things like that. And so we would watch it. It was entertaining, it was cute… So, a lot of what I learned actually came from cartoons and, and a lot of reading.”Employment →