Students in ESL classes share enthusiasm for learning

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— Thirteen people from countries as diverse as Romania, Mexico and West Africa gathered in a room at the Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs Tuesday night with one goal in mind.

They were trying to figure out what it means to "pull someone's leg."

These students in the college's English as a second language summer class were studying idioms phrases that mean something very different then their literal translations.

Some students furrowed their faces in deep concentration, some cracked a smile and others wore a look of puzzlement as they read the phrase.

When instructor Tiffany Gebhardt told them pulling someone's leg really means to make a person believe a story that isn't true, the students laughed.

The class went through the list, learning phrases such as "He spilled the beans" or "I hit the ceiling yesterday," or "She hit the hay after a long day at work."

Agnes Grabarz, a college student in Poland who is visiting a friend in Steamboat for the summer, volunteered to use an idiom in a sentence.

"You're out on a limb because you haven't paid your taxes," she said in a quiet voice.

The class laughed and nodded in agreement. Grabarz's example made sense.

Offering ESL classes in Steamboat also makes a lot of sense, teachers said, especially because there have been rises in the city's international population.

Estimates of the number of people from other countries that now call Steamboat home are not available, but teachers with the college's ESL program said that when the classes were first offered about two decades ago, there were only a handful of students.

Now the college's ESL program gets about 35 to 45 students each semester.

Jennifer le Roux has taught ESL classes at the college for the past five years. During that time, the college went from one ESL instructor to three instructors and a volunteer.

The college now offers three levels of instruction, as well as an intense English class for very advanced speakers. Next fall a morning class will also be offered.

One thing the students at all levels seem to share, le Roux said, is an enthusiasm for learning English.

"It's a very, very energetic class," she said. "It's hard for them to come after work. But they're very loyal and they come."

Some students, like Ingo Jackel, are so dedicated they return for multiple semesters and work their way through all levels of the class.

Jackel came from Brazil two and a half years ago to work on his aunt and uncle's farm and to learn English. He hadn't studied English before coming, but after several semesters of ESL at the college, he is now an advanced speaker.

Jackel said two things that have motivated him to continue the classes have been the support of the teachers and the fact that the classes are fun.

"It's awesome," Jackel said. "It's the people you know (in class). They are funny guys."

What is unique about these ESL classes, teachers said, is the students have extremely diverse backgrounds. Besides coming from a variety of countries, students range in age, profession and future plans.

Gebhardt said a lot of residents in Steamboat probably don't realize this town of 10,000 people has a small but incredibly varied international population.

"I would say that people don't really know how diverse the ESL learners are," Gebhardt said. "Every student has a different story for why they ended up in Steamboat."

Grabarz, who gave the "out on a limb" example, said she has studied English in Poland but it's easier to learn to speak English in the United States.

"It's a new experience for me," she said. "It's different from learning English in Poland. It's a huge difference."

Mauricio Clavery came from Mexico two years ago and has tried to learn English on his own. He is now an assistant manager at Wal-Mart and decided instead of working two jobs he would take the college's classes this summer.

"I'm working hard for that," he said. "I'm trying to make time to take this class now because I really need to. It's so important for me right now because my goal is to come back to school."

Clavery speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, as well as a little French, and already has a degree in economics.

He said he came to Colorado for the mountains and has enjoyed being a part of the Steamboat community.

"I love this place," he said.

Mamadou Ibrahima came to the United States last fall from Senegal with refugee status and now works at the local Wendy's. Before he enrolled in the ESL class in February, he had never spoken English.

"It's very difficult if you live in Steamboat (and) don't speak English," he said. "It's hard to talk to people."

Because people who don't speak English can sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the Steamboat community, le Roux said an important part of the classes is the social interactions they give students.

"Most of the students say it's a really nice social gathering," le Roux said. "It's a good place to meet other people who are new to the community, and they show each other around the community."

By offering students the support and encouragement they need to quickly learn English, the college's ESL program makes it easier for dozens of international newcomers to become a part of the Steamboat community.

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