Adult immigrants invest their future in a new language

Jesuina da Veiga, 43, is a mother of two and taught elementary school in Cape Verde for 19 years. But as a fresh immigrant in the United States she became a student again.

When she settled in Dorchester two years ago she couldn't speak a word in English. She used a translator whenever she visited the health center, and she couldn't help her children with their homework.

"Sometimes I felt sad. Sometimes I cried," she said.

Her new life in America seemed to her like an unending journey into a stormy sea. She realized soon enough that she had to learn how to swim. She enrolled into the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at the Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses. And now she can speak English without struggling to find the right words. More and more immigrants follow her example in their effort to build a better life.

Immigrants like da Veiga are Dorchester's backbone. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s large numbers of Latin Americans, Caribbean Islanders, Cape Verdeans, and Southeast Asians began making Fields Corner, Codman Square and other neighborhood spots their new home. According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, 33.9 percent of the population in da Veiga's neighborhood is foreign born and in 48 percent of the households English is not the only spoken language, according to the 2000 US Census. Da Veiga's school is in the heart of Boston's Babel.

In a recently renovated wooden house with blue stairs and warm classrooms at 222 Bowdoin St., 140 adult immigrants learn English. They come from Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Morocco and Asia. The lessons are free - the City of Boston's English for New Bostonians program covers expenses along with other fundraising.

Since 1995, when Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses started the adult education program, the demand has been increasing. For the 2007-2008 season, the ESOL classes received extra funding of $28,000 to add 15 more spots and 64 people are on a waitlist to start the program.

"They usually wait from six months to a year to find a spot," said Kedan Harris, director of the Adult Education department. "They want to be able to communicate better with their bosses and coworkers, find a better job, get more involved in their children's life by participating in parent-teacher conferences."

But as the age of the students varies, from the early 20s to the late 60s, so do their goals. Sara Gomes, 50, wants to follow her brother's footsteps; he got a GED and now attends college. Geovanina Cabral, 56, a mother of eight and grandmother of nine, wants to "get a driving license, buy a car, and a house."

But mastering a new language at an older age is not an easy task. It is much easier for children, said Dan Monti, a Boston University Sociology professor. For adults, English words are not just a combination of letters but an introduction to a new way of life, he said.

"Their challenge is to learn fast enough because they want to adapt," Monti said. "It's not easy. But I am impressed by their energy, their intelligence, their ability to fit in."

Mary Diggle, an ESOL and GED instructor, has been teaching adults for the last 15 years. "It's wonderful," she said. "They know what they want and what they need. And you can also establish friendships with them."

English literacy levels vary in the class, and in some ways it is as if the students are children again, Harris said. "They need encouragement. They make mistakes, but we have to show them that this is OK and how they can learn from them."

The school encourages students to sit next to people from other countries so they are not able to speak in their mother language during class. However, Monti said the immigrant communities that form in neighborhoods such as Dorchester can ease the adaptation process. "It becomes a safe place to share stories, support each other. They figure out how to become Americans together."

Most of the students at the Adult Education program work in hotels, restaurants, or factory settings. Harris recalled one student from Morocco who was a French teacher in her country but worked as a Store 24 cashier after arriving in Dorchester.

Pius Lulonga, 43, had been a merchant in Tanzania and Zambia before moving to America and becoming a dishwasher. "They don't need you to speak in this job [dishwashing]. I wanted to talk and learn English, so I left," Lulonga said. Now Lulonga works for Boston Scientific, a medical device company. He wants to return to Africa someday and start his own business. "Now that I will speak English I would be better in my job."

Jesuina da Veiga hopes six hours of English classes every week could bring her a job as an elementary school teacher again. "In life everything is possible," she said.