8 Jun 2015

ESOL a life-line - laughter while you learn

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 8 June 2015

They have no words, no vocabulary. You can't build a house without bricks and foundation - Indu Bajwa, Literacy and Numeracy Educator, English Language Partners, Auckland South

Indu Bajwa with her ESOL students, Paptoetoe

Indu Bajwa with her ESOL students, Paptoetoe Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Mai walks from Otahuhu to Papatoetoe just so that she won't miss her weekly ESOL classes with "Teacher Indu." There is huge motivation. 

"I want to go to school. I want to learn more English."

Mai's simple statement is loaded with vast life experiences, tough life experiences common to many of these new (and some not so new) Asian migrants, former refugees, single working parents and elderly men and women from all corners of the globe.

"In these classes everyone laughs a lot!" Indu Bajwa tells me. Some have survived devastating conflicts back in their country of origin and so it's no surprise that Mai from Vietnam, Munaw from Burma and others will do anything to get to their ESOL (English as a second language) classes to laugh while they are learning.

Teacher Indu is their life-line. Indu Bajwa has been a numeracy and literacy educator for the last 15 years. teaching with one of NZ’s oldest literacy programmes. Managed by Julia Castle the organisation English Language Partners, Auckland South, started as far back as 1972.

Many of Indu's students have been so isolated, even after living here for a decade or more. These"pre-lit"  ESOL classes are designed to help with the fundamentals of resettlement, every day things we take for granted like; grocery shopping, employment, banking and doctor’s visits.

In the city council community rooms in Papatoetoe, Auckland, around 10 women are trying to get their tongue around the word "Employment" and "office". It's a very real concern for them. Some may have been here for over a decade but general isolation has meant delayed opportunities to integrate or find work. Even simple tasks like catching a bus or going to the bank can be daunting, especially for former refugees, solo parents or the elderly.  

"It's one-to-one, we help them to settle down, with English and with emotions," says Indu. So it's about overcoming the isolation? "Absolutely!"

For women like Victoria from Iraq, her ESOL teacher is one of her best friends. She may have been here for 15 years but she has only been going to ESOL for the last three years. It's like doors and windows opening up on a whole new world. She is immensely proud of the fact that she has a provisional drivers license now.

"You can't build a house without bricks and foundation," Indu tells me. "These classes are structured according to their needs. Our classes are designed for practical use, especially the pre-lit classes. What are their needs? They have no words, no vocabulary, so we are building the foundation."

Be Happy – you will learn better

Reads the placard above the white board, that's Indu's cheerful touch. There is so much laughter during the class, Indu's positive outlook is engaging. "It helps if they are happy, I believe we can learn better if we laugh a lot."

"Do you have your train ticket?" asks Indu, "No," replies Mai, "I gave to my daughter." Indu organises to help Mai get another. She will need it to cut down the hours walking from home to class to jobs.

"We have Mai, she is a single working mum, she has learned so much." Indu proudly tells me that single mother Mai is bringing up four children on her own while holding down part-time jobs. Originally Mon Thai from Vietnam Mai may be working on her English but her numeracy skills are fantastic. "Mai is very good with her numbers, she does banking on her and own sells food at the flea markets in Mangere."

Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Khmer ... Indu Bajwa can communicate on a basic level with her students in over 15 languages, she laughs as she says being multilingual should probably come with the job prescription.

Munaw is a former refugee from Burma, her husband is quite sick and needs a lot of medicine. Munaw appears to be really good at keeping the class in line, there is general laughter as Munaw rallies the other students to talk to me.

The children of these migrants are helping their parents. Begum is also from Burma, she tells me that she has four children (ages ranging from 17 to 9). Begum's children will help her to speak English too and they are growing up as bi-lingual New Zealanders. If she has her children with her Begum will bring them to the class. They are welcome too - Indu's classes are like big extended families.

The elderly and single parents are often the most isolated because of gender, language and cultural barriers but that’s been changing, these new Asian migrants are benefiting greatly from classes taught in practical and user-friendly ways.

Teacher Indu is also the ESOL tutor at the Manurewa Sikh Gurudwara Nanskar (temple).

Very nice! That's very good Aunty, very proud!

Co-ordinator Ravneet Kaur Sandhu is praising Sun Kaur, one of the elderly Sikh "Aunties" in a group of around 10 women at the Gurudwara as Sun Kaur successfully explains her name, age and other details to me in English.

This group of elderly women are known respectfully as “Aunties”, grandmothers here to support their family.   These are very new ESOL classes, they've been going for about a year and a half  at the Gurdwara and are facilitated by the Anand Isher Educational and Community Trust.

I'm greeted warmly by all the Aunties and we converse in English and they are very keen to feed me (langar, or communal lunch is not far off). No matter that their English is halting and broken with moments of rapid Punjabi as they work around articulating their thoughts to me through Ravneet Kaur, the point is that they can catch the bus now without wondering if they will end up disorientated and lost on the North Shore, they can give all the basic information needed at the doctors.

Ravneet Kaur tells me that the Aunties used to dread going out for the most simple things such as groceries and visits to the doctors.  The Aunties were not isolated within their own communities, rather, they were isolated from wider society, from the world outside the Gurudwara's gates.

These Aunties are genuinely delighted to be able to tell me who they are - this is a remarkable achievement given all the barriers they have overcome. I'm delighted too, their enthusiasm - like Indu's is infectious. Being happy really does wonders when learning to speak another language.