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English Language Centers See Exponential Growth in Springfield

The demand for learning English as a second language has risen significantly in southwest Missouri in the past decade. KSMU's Jennifer Moore reports.

Four students--one each from Mongolia, Korea, Russia and Thailand--are focused on their Saudi Arabian classmate who stands at the front of the room. The young Saudi, named Abdul-Rahman, is trembling slightly from nervousness as he raises his marker to the board. His instructor, Pascal Hamon, has asked Abdul-Rahman to define the English word "pale"...P-A-L-E...and to use it in a sentence.

"Pale...To turn white from fear or sickness."

"Okay, and a sentence?"

"Susan turned pale because she was caught cheating with her husband's brother." (Laughter)

"Abdul! You have crazy sentences. She was caught cheating with her husband's brother? Are you writing a soap opera?"

The class is part of Missouri State University's English Language Institute, based in downtown Springfield. The Institute has mushroomed from an enrollment of five students in 1996 to 92 students today. Other centers teaching English as a second language have also seen exponential growth in the past 10 years.

Part of the reason for the growth is due to an influx of immigrants from Latin American countries. But in the English Language Institute in Springfield, the countries comprising the largest number of students might come as a surprise to some: Saudi Arabia, Korea and Mongolia top the list this year.

The Saudi students are here on scholarships from their government. Students from other parts of the world are here because they hope to go to college or seminary in the United States, and they must learn English beforehand.

The instructor, Pascal Hamon, who himself hails from France, says there are good and bad aspects about learning English as a second language in the Ozarks.

"Let's start with the advantage of being here," he says. "You can't function without it, so you are forced by the environment to use English. Whereas if you are in a big city, you might find a community who speaks your language, then you can always stay in that community and you end up not making any progress. So that's a plus, because it's very very unlikely that you will meet anyone who speaks anything else. You need English."

But, he adds, the students' learning is hindered by differences between what students study in their own countries and regional dialects they encounter on the street.

"People here say 'Howdy,' or 'How are you doing?' But the students have learned 'How are you?' So when they hear 'How are you doing,' they think someone is saying, 'What are you doing?' And they say 'I'm studying,' which leads to a big misunderstanding."

The students in Pascal's class say they have a particularly hard time understanding Ozarks slang. Byamba, a middle-aged Mongolian woman who aspires to earn a Master's Degree, says she and her high-school aged son are trying to figure it out together.

"Once my son was high school student, he came to me and said, 'Do you know the word, "Youknowwhatimsayin'? What it means?" Then later, when we were in Best Buy, this salesman said 'Youknowwhatimsayin'?' Then my son said, 'See? You know now?' Then I asked what it means. It means, 'Do you know what I'm saying?' But they say, 'Youknowwhatimsayin.'"

Byamba says she is also trying to learn English phrases and sayings, and that she is learning not to take all expressions literally.

"Also, I don't understand and know how to answer if someone says, 'What's up?' Then I don't know what I need to tell them."

When you stop and think about it, a question like "What's up?" would probably be a bit confusing if you weren't familiar with its meaning.

Byamba says she has had a bank teller laugh at her strong accent, and that communicating with a doctor can be challenging. But overall, she thinks Missourians are very kind. She just wishes they wouldn't speak so quickly.

The English Language Institute says it expects its numbers to continue to grow and is actively seeking new students and instructors.

For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore