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English in a Strange Land

November 18, 1999

Jessie Morgan

As if being a young mother weren't difficult enough--imagine ushering your toddler through the terrible twos in a place where no one speaks your language, the baby's favorite food isn't in the stores, and, even if it were, you wouldn't be able to read the packaging. That's the reality for some of the spouses of 900 international students, faculty members and researchers who come to Tulane to live and work or study each year.

The Center for International Students and Scholars estimates that this year 50 of these scholars brought their families with them to New Orleans. To help these spouses, who are mostly women, learn the basics of the English language and American culture, a local volunteer has organized the Tulane International Wives Program.

The program, which started last year, is a casual and supportive class far removed from the rigors of a course such as English as a Second Language, says Evelyn Del Cid, the program's founder. "The women have enough on their plates right now to not want to commit themselves to three hours of ESL homework a night," she says. "But the desire to learn English is there, for survival. We can provide a niche for these women."

Last spring, Del Cid, who is also on Tulane's religious life staff as the contact with the Quaker Friends of New Orleans, taught eight young mothers English language basics in the second-floor lounge of Rosen House, the graduate student dormitory where most of the women lived.

The women hailed from countries as diverse as the Ivory Coast, China, Turkey and Vietnam and actually benefited from the fact that none spoke the same language, Del Cid says. "The only thing that can bring them together is English," Del Cid says.

Relationships between the women bloomed as the classes progressed. A mother from the Ivory Coast and a woman from Turkey began to shop together and make trips with their children to the park.

"In this way we gained more than we ever expected. It is more than learning simple sentences," Del Cid says, "It is about developing friendships. The practical goals of the program are to teach the women enough English to communicate, go to the store and do some simple reading," Del Cid says.

"The group also serves to lessen the feelings of isolation and helplessness that one can feel in a country where no one speaks your language. My heart goes out to these women," says Del Cid, who knows how it feels to be a young mother in a strange land.

Years ago, she followed her husband to Italy, where he worked with the United Nations. "In Italy, I became for the first time a housewife," she says. "My husband was out meeting people, working. My children were in school. I was at home washing floors, cleaning sheets by hand. My head said that I don't have room in my brain right now for another language."

Del Cid has two masters degrees, one in counseling and the other in education. She also is certified as a school counselor, a teacher and an ESL instructor. In teaching English to such a varied group, Del Cid says she uses a method based on pictures, instead of words. She sends taped lessons home for practice, and at the end of each class they sing.

"We work on nursery songs, which are close to their English level, but it is really for the young children [who attend with their mothers]," she says. "This is their time. I hope that when they return to their home countries this will be a memory of the United States for them."

For the fall program, Del Cid hopes to work on fostering the reading skills of the women who have lived in the country for a few months. She is looking for volunteers who are native speakers of English to team-teach both speaking and writing.

"My hope is that the volunteers will become really interested in the welfare of these women, outside of the confines of that one hour," she says.

The wives program will train the volunteers before classes resume in the fall. For more information, call Del Cid at 861-0390.

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