Learning English is one of the most daunting tasks for newly arriving immigrants in the United States, and it can be a task that is accompanied by little support. Anna Zahm ’13, Grace Parker Zielinski ’14 and Melissa Segura ’14, have spent their summers working to combat this problem by providing much-needed assistance to English language adult students at the Utica access site for the Madison-Oneida Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).

The three are conducting a study on methods of language instruction and the relationship between language and citizenship with a Levitt Summer Group Research Grant under the direction of Associate Professor of Anthropology Chaise LaDousa. Their work includes the classroom instruction of adult students of all ages from countries including Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Bosnia, Poland and Brazil, as well as recording of in-class field notes and conducting student interviews. The researchers are working closely with LaDousa, who hopes to integrate materials from this project into his upcoming course Ethnography of Literacy and Visual Language, and to secure a grant from the Spencer Foundation to allow for a continuation of this summer’s research.

One of the group’s key goals was to investigate the relationship between citizenship and English as a Second Language (ESL) by learning why students at the BOCES center chose to pursue their studies. Because the classes taught by the Hamilton students are adult day classes, many of their students choose to forgo work and childcare responsibilities in order to attend English classes, indicating that the process of learning English often requires significant commitment and sacrifice.

Based on their interviews and classroom interactions, the three student researchers found that the reasons immigrants chose to pursue English language studies are highly varied, ranging from pragmatic desires, such as better employment opportunities, to less tangible desires, such as the need to feel like part of the community. Still others pursued English language studies simply because they felt it was the “right thing to do,” such as one woman who stated that she felt a sense of duty to learn English because immigrants arriving in her native country were expected to learn the national language.

While the three found their research to be both compelling and interesting, their time spent teaching turned out to be the most rewarding element of their project. Because attendance at BOCES classes is optional, classes often varied in size from just a few students to more than 15 and nearly always included a different mix of students. Because of this, the three researchers realized that they needed to follow an unstructured curriculum, and therefore focused on making the classes as conversational as possible.

The benefit of this approach – in addition to making the classes enjoyable and easy for the students to follow – was that it allowed Zahm, Segura and Parker Zielinski to gain a better understanding of their students’ backgrounds and life stories. Parker Zielinski noted that the experience of getting to know her students and the struggles they had faced and overcome was a particularly humbling experience.

Although their research is almost at an end, Zahm, Segura and Parker Zielinski have yet to determine how to approach their concluding paper. The sheer volume of classroom observation notes, interview transcripts and outside research they’ve accumulated provides the group with more information than can be summarized in one paper. Fortunately, this leaves the opportunity for further conclusions to be drawn on the topic by future linguistics researchers. 

Zahm is a graduate of Orchard Park High School, Parker Zielinski graduated from Charles O. Dickerson High School (N.Y.) and Segura is a graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep School (Ill.).

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