Asian Students at Language ETC

My Advanced class last night was interested in the recent news that Asian immigration has now outpaced Hispanic immigration to the US. More Asians than Hispanics are arriving, reversing decades-long trends. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic percentage of the immigrant population declined, while the percentage of Asians has risen sharply.

The DC area is no exception. Indeed, our region is a magnet for Asian immigrants, especially Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Vietnamese. The area’s Asian population grew by an astounding 60 percent between 2000 and 2010 and now numbers more than half a million.

Clerks and shoppers at Hanaro Food Store in Centreville, which has Fairfax County’s largest Asian community. Photo: Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times.

Where do our Asian students come from?

Oddly enough, in terms of their national origin, Asian students at Language ETC don’t mirror the regional Asian population. For one thing, two of the five largest groups in the area, Indians and Filipinos, tend to already speak English. Also, most Asian immigrants in the metropolitan area live in the suburbs — especially Fairfax and Loudoun County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland — rather than in DC itself. (Asians are only 3.5 percent of the population in DC, compared to 17.5 percent in Fairfax County.) Asians in the suburbs who want ESL classes probably find them closer to home.

Instead, our Asian enrollment has a unique pattern influenced by the proximity of certain embassies, especially the Laotian Embassy and the Myanmar Embassy, both on S Street NW, two blocks from Language ETC. We have 54 Asian students enrolled this term, with the largest national group being 11 students from Myanmar. The second-largest is 9 students from Vietnam, and third is 7 students from Laos. We also have 6 students from Kazakhstan, 5 from China, 4 from Thailand, 3 from Afghanistan, 2 each from Japan and Sri Lanka, and 1 each from Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Taiwan, and Uzbekistan.

The Embassy of Myanmar on S Street NW, directly behind Language ETC.

Many of our Asian students over the years have been associated with their countries’ embassies. This term we have 6 who work at the Myanmar Embassy, 5 at the Laotian Embassy, and 1 each at the Kazakhstan and Sri Lankan embassies. And there may be even more, as students don’t always specify their employer. Though it’s hard to be sure, it appears that most of the embassy workers we serve are support staff like clerks and technicians, though we have had diplomats too. We also get family members. This term 21 of our Asian students reported that they are “not in the labor force and not looking” — very likely, in some cases, the dependents of embassy staff.

Asian students in ESL classrooms

If you’ve had Asian students in your classes at Language ETC, chances are you will remember. They stand out in a number of ways. One reason is their generally high level of education. This term, 27 — exactly half — of our 54 Asian students are college graduates, and 5 more have had some college.

Some fall into the pattern of highly educated students in general: proficient with written work, but less confident in speaking. Many have studied English in their home country, but often in a traditional way that emphasized grammar and gave them little opportunity to actually talk. Their ability to become literate in a language with a dramatically different writing system is nothing short of amazing. But for many, oral fluency remains a challenge.

Two Vietnamese students in one of our morning classes.

There’s a young Chinese woman, an embassy spouse, in my Advanced class this spring. She studied English in China and her understanding of grammar, on paper, is excellent. But she was so shy about speaking at the start of the term that she practically whispered. In the 12 weeks, her confidence has blossomed, and she’s become quite chatty. “English and Chinese — so different,” she explained to us.

It’s true. Phonetically, English and Chinese are nothing alike. Chinese is a tonal language, our student explained. Each character can be pronounced with up to four different tones, producing four different meanings for the same word. (My class of Latin Americans and Europeans looked aghast when she demonstrated this — I think we were all glad we weren’t learning Chinese.)

As for writing, Chinese has thousands of ideographic characters; English has 26 letters that form nearly a quarter million different combinations called words. Lexically, English has almost nothing in common with any of the Asian languages. Spanish-speaking students often see that new words in English are cognates for Spanish words they know (e.g., conversation / conversación). Asian students don’t get that boost.

My Advanced class this term is truly a mini–United Nations, with students from 15 countries. Students from Myanmar and China add a dimension to this fascinating mix. With the growth of the area’s Asian population, we’re likely to see more Asian students in our classrooms, enriching everyone’s experience at Language ETC.

A street in Toronto’s Chinatown with signs in Chinese, Vietnamese, and possibly other Asian languages. Photo: John Vetterli.

This entry was posted in Immigration and Multiculturalism, Washington English Center. Bookmark the permalink.

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