CESL helps students break language barriers

By Hanh Quach

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Most students at the Center of English as a Second Language agree that in order to effectively learn English, they must immerse themselves in an entirely foreign language and culture.

Becoming accustomed to a culture that does not rely on a central religion and accepts virtually neutral gender roles is a big challenge, said CESL student Abdulwahab Abalkhail, 28, of Saudi Arabia.

"In my country, even though we study the English books, it is not very helpful. Here we play games, sing songs, and speak with native Americans. It is very interesting," said Artem Badagov, a 17-year-old student from Kazakhstan.

The "intensive learning" program keeps some students in classes close to 25 hours a week. With a communicative style, the classes emphasize interaction among the multinational students and teachers, said Frank Pialorsi, director of the center and English department professor.

The Center for English as a Second Language at the UA, among the first 10 centers in the U.S., is celebrating 25 years of service to students of more than 100 countries, said Pialorsi.

Since 1968, the center has graduated 21,000 students. This year, he said enrollment for the program stands at 164 students from 30 different countries. By the end of this semester, Pialorsi expects to graduate more than 200 students.

The staff of 25 instructors abide by a departmental teaching philosophy that includes techniques to "relax students and protect their egos, create an atmosphere where students are not embarrassed by their errors, and include socially useful phrases."

"I was scared to come to America at first because my English was very bad," said Mohammad Akbar, 20, of Kuwait. "But my father told me that American people are very friendly and they will help you."

But, Denise Menestrey, a 19-year-old student from Colombia who hopes to study dentistry, said, "Sometimes, if you cannot speak very well and cannot say everything you think, [Americans] think you are stupid."

Fortunately for some students, these individual fears were never addressed. "I learned a lot about how Americans discriminate in my country," said Minsuk Kang, a 25-year-old Korean. Since he arrived in the U.S. one month ago, Kang says he has not yet experienced any prejudices.

The UA's CESL is ranked among the top 10 programs in the country, and Pialorsi said it is mentioned by many other institutions as being among the best.

In Kuwait, the UA is rated among the top universities in the U.S., said Aqeel Abdullah, 21, who plans to stay at the UA to earn a degree in business after the CESL program.

"At home, I study English for two hours a day, then I go home and speak Arabic with my friends and family," said Abdullah, "but here, I must use English everywhere."

During the early years of CESL, "teachers were not trained in this field," Pialorsi said. "Teaching was very structural and there was a lot of listening and repetition. There was no meaningful conversation."

Instructional videotapes, audiotapes and computers also assist CESL students in learning English. Most students agree, though, that what helps them most is the practice in speaking English.

Pialorsi, then the center's first summer director, said the first session available to non-English speakers in 1968 was called English for Spanish Speakers. In 1969, the program's curriculum expanded to include Korean pilots wanting to learn English.

During his 15-years as full-time director of the center, Pialorsi and others on his staff have traveled abroad to direct workshops teaching English and recruiting new students.

The program requires that students have at least a secondary education. The non-credit program is split into seven different proficiency levels which range from beginning English to English for academic preparation.

Admitted students must pay roughly $3,300 per semester during the academic year.

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