For these night students – from countries like China, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia – American life is a riddle wrapped in a stranger riddle: the English language.

What does it mean to “get” the door? Why is “pants” plural? And with how fast Americans talk, how can anyone hear the difference between “fifteen” and “fifty”?

Shuzhi, a student who migrated to the U.S. in 2004, described the added confusion when she can’t see a speaker’s face or gestures: “When listen telephone…” – she mimes a telephone to her ear and shakes her head – “…Repeat again? Repeat again?”

The beginner English-for-Speakers-of-Other-Languages (ESOL) class at the Harvard Ed Portal is helping students like Shuzhi solve these daily puzzles. Understanding English is the first step to meeting basic needs, participating in civic life and accessing better job opportunities. And increasingly, Boston’s success depends on the success of its immigrant residents. Nearly all of Boston’s population growth since 1980 is attributable to immigration, with foreign-born residents making up 28% of the city.

Chinese woman at table with others
Shuzhi can walk 10 minutes from her home to the Harvard Ed Portal class.

The Harvard Ed Portal – a community education partnership of Harvard University, the City of Boston, the Harvard Allston Task Force, and the Allston-Brighton community – is one of many institutions in the city rising to the challenge. The Portal launched its ESOL class in February after conversations among Allston ESOL providers revealed a need for more classes to address the long waitlists for English instruction. Currently, the Portal’s class is the only formal evening ESOL Level 0-1 class in the Allston-Brighton area.

Here, in the Portal’s brightly lit classroom, students can try out new words and make mistakes without the pressure of performing for a waiting salesperson or a confused neighbor. On a recent Tuesday night, nine students attempt conversation about colors, clothes, and the clock. When one speaker flubs a pronunciation, the others chime in en masse to help. (If not always helpful, it’s at least overwhelmingly supportive.) When she gets it right, a ragged chorus of “Good, good!” goes up from the class. As if one victory belongs to all.

Learning English like this is a noisy, communal affair and surprisingly funny. Disarmed of easy speech, the students make exaggerated faces and gestures like silent comedians. Full-grown adults, they break into laughter over their toddler-level talk. For many, this is their first English-speaking community.

The instructor, Sarah Lynn – or “teacher,” to her students – steers their growing confidence in practical directions. She helps them locate the Allston library on a map, then hands out a schedule of the library’s ESOL conversation groups. They practice saying the times and days of the week aloud – discovering a valuable new resource in the process.

Meghan Conlon, a volunteer from Marshfield, works one-on-one with a Saudi woman in the class who has only just mastered the alphabet. Some nights, Conlon is too tired to commute home and must stay overnight with her sister in Boston, but she loves seeing the students’ progress.

woman in headscarf holds slip of paper, facing another woman
Jamela and Shuzhi help each other with their English by trading conversational questions.

“Everyone has different levels of ability, but I can see a lot of improvement just from the first class,” Conlon said. “They’re all super dedicated and eager. They’re really willing to work hard.”

Jamela, another Saudi immigrant in the class, knows some English already but comes to translate for her Saudi friend. She came to the U.S. last year to be near her daughter, a biomedical engineering student at Boston University.

“The class is a golden chance for us,” Jamela said. “A chance to meet distinguished people who volunteer to benefit others and others who are keen to develop themselves, regardless of age.”

The Harvard Ed Portal Economic and Workforce Advisory Committee is chaired by Trinh Nguyen, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development (OWD), and includes city representative Gerald Autler, Senior Project Manager/Planner at the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA). 

View the slideshow below to take a place at the table with the beginner ESOL class at the Harvard Ed Portal.

In a multilingual classroom, a simple thumbs-up works to get encouragement across.
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