Immigrant women far outnumber men in English as a Second Language classes across the states. (WOMENSENEWS)–A year ago, when Delma Santucei’s 4-year-old daughter asked her to read a book in English there was long awkward silence.

Then came her momentous decision.

"Now is my time to go to school and learn English," said Santucei, who emigrated from Brazil 10 years ago with her husband. "It made me afraid. I don’t want to teach wrong word for her," she said.

Now she curls up with her daughter and revels in reading bedtime stories. She is a better speller than her husband who took English as Second Language, or ESL, classes on and off, she said.

When Santucei joined the free ESL classes at Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Mass., she was surprised by the preponderance of women. Each classroom, each language level, was almost two-thirds female.

"It has always been 70 percent women," said Diane Pourtnoy, who founded the not-for-profit adult education center for immigrants and refugees in 1992. The long waiting list reflects the ratio.

Similarly, in English for New Bostonians, 71 percent of 1,141 students are women. The initiative is a public-private-community program started by the mayor’s office.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education, one of the key providers of ESL, finds a similar pattern across the country in its classes, with female enrollment dwarfing that of male enrollment in most states.

Most Students Foreign Born

The data do not include immigration status, but since these are adult ESL classes it can be assumed that most of the students are foreign born, said Cheryl Keenan, director of adult education and literacy at the Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Adult ESL classes are available through an array of places: public schools, community and faith-based programs, public libraries, volunteer groups, community colleges, workplaces and for-profit companies, said Lynda Terrill at the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, based in Washington, D.C.

Pourtnoy said women have consistently dominated ESL classes; however, it is not a straightforward "gender gap in education" issue. "There are too many variables. The reasons are very much cultural," she said.

Among immigrant communities, men often harbor a "macho attitude," she said, where the emphasis is on earning money and not going to language school. Men are frequently busy working multiple jobs.

"How can he have time to come to school?" said Rosangela Souza, referring to her husband, who has two jobs.

Souza came to United States more than a year ago from Brazil; she quit her housecleaning job to take care of her daughter and her husband.

She said her husband prefers to learn English on the street but is adamant that Souza finish her training, because "if somebody call to him in English, he would say ‘please could you wait one second’ and he would pass the phone to me."

Women Half of Recent Immigrants

Females are about half of recently arrived immigrants to the United States, said Richard Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Research Center, based in Washington, D.C.

Not much difference exists in the English proficiency of recently arrived males and females, thus there is no gender difference in the need for ESL.

Many reasons motivate women to enroll in ESL classes, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Boston. "Our research shows that for immigrant women, if you lack good English skills you are significantly more likely to be bounced out of the labor market."

While immigrant men find jobs more easily, women have a harder time and the wage consequences for not knowing English are higher, adds Sum.

One reason is that immigrant men tend to join male-dominated job sectors, such as construction, which do not require high language skills. Women tend to seek jobs that entail customer service, such as entry-level health care and hospitality, which demand English speaking and writing skills.

"For women, the penalty for not having the English skills is higher, the reward for getting them is stronger," said Sum.

Male Motivation Differs

If men join ESL classes it is usually to get a better paying job, he said.

Fatima Fadi, who came with her husband a year ago from Morocco, often asks her Moroccan male friends, "Why you don’t go to school?"

She said there is one unanimous answer, always–they all want to collect money and start a business back home.

But for her, ESL school is a chance to integrate into the community. She said that not knowing English makes her feel lonely, particularly when she tries to shop and can’t communicate with merchants.

In an ESL class at the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Mass., she finds her second home and draws confidence from her classmates.

According to Sum, ESL classes provide an opportunity to women to be a "better parent, instructor for children and be a more intellectually engaged individual."

This seems to be the case for Xiu Mei Su, who came from China six years ago. Su wants to be engaged in her daughter’s education. "I don’t want my children feel embarrassed when I go for parent-teacher meetings," she said

Claudia Green, director of English for New Bostonians at the Boston-based Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, cautions that children and parenting are not always the motivator for women to take ESL classes.

"A lot of times, women waited until their children were older, till they felt it is my turn now," she said.

Alesandrina Perez, who is from Peru, waited for 10 years before she enrolled in English classes. Now that her daughters are in school she is fervently trying to learn English.

Wiping away tears she said, "If you don’t know English, people always discriminate against you."




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Source: Office of Vocational and Adult Education: National Reporting System

Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.

For more information:

Office of Vocational and Ault Education: National Reporting System

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