Click photo to enlarge
Pavel Sedliar, left, and his sister-in-law Elina Sobol laugh during an ESL class at the English Center on Jan. 7, 2009, in Oakland, Calif. The center also offers other classes including computer instruction to help foreign students in their search for work in the U.S. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

OAKLAND — "How are you?" Marianna Matthews asks her class. "How are you?"

Identical words, slightly different questions. The teacher asks her adult students if they understand the difference.

"It's called intonation," she said, diagraming the flow from one syllable to another. "It's the music of English. Whether your voice goes up or down."

The mysteries of English are, in part, about words and how to pronounce and write them.

But the students at The English Center in Jack London Square, hailing from the Ivory Coast, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, China, Bhutan, Myanmar, Latin America and elsewhere, want more than words and grammar. They are looking to understand the nuances.

"I want to find the same job here that I had in Lithuania," said student Pavel Sedliar, of Walnut Creek. "But I must have perfect English."

Even in the best times, the kind of students who find themselves at The English Center, many of them refugees, all of them immigrants, have trouble finding jobs in an unfamiliar world.

But in the current economic climate, their efforts to find work that meets their skills — or at least pays the rent — are even more dependent on being able to comfortably speak the language of the mainstream job market.

"There is just less available of what they can do and more competition for what's available," said Don Climent, a regional director of the International Rescue Committee who helps locally resettled refugees adjust to the Bay Area.


Advertisement

Sedliar, who is fluent in many Eastern European languages and used to work at a Lithuanian telecommunications company, first began improving his English at an adult school in Concord.

He later found out about The English Center, which offers an intensive, five-day-a-week course that includes computer skills and help finding jobs. Arriving every morning with his assigned reading — John Steinbeck's "The Pearl" — Sedliar said he is thrilled to be part of classes that include people from almost every continent and a multitude of cultures.

"I have the possibility to improve not only my English skills but also my communication skills," he said.

Founded in 1977 and previously called the English Center for International Women, the Oakland organization has been trying to widen its impact since moving from the Mills College campus to Jack London Square last summer.

With enrollment fully subsidized by a mix of government and private funding, finding a crew of promising students who need the help is not difficult, said Michael Goldberg, associate director of operations.

"Employers are really happy to work with highly motivated, appreciative employees," Goldberg said. "And the average recent refugee is someone who really appreciates being here."

Some students have been in the country for many years, but spent most of them toiling in exploitative, shared language work environments where "rules are bent and the ideas of overtime aren't always enforced or carried out or respected," Goldberg said.

The center's latest project has it trying to link up with the new federal stimulus project, including young refugees and other recent immigrants in the group of East Bay youths who will be eligible for summertime job programs.

At the same time, he said the center is working to do job and language training for some of the East Bay's most economically vulnerable newcomers — incoming refugees who are arriving in the country after living more than 55 years someplace else.

"Somebody who is 55 from Nepal, what does our job market have for them if they can't speak any English?" Goldberg said.

Giving them an intensive English course, then finding them internship-like jobs with local nonprofits, will "at least give them a fighting chance," he said.

"We're a different animal," he said. "We want to kind of attract a different kind of student. We are preparing people to succeed in this society."