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Originally published Sunday, July 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Job Market

English now taught as a working language

For tens of thousands of adults in Washington, the road to a new or better job is paved with English jargon, slang, lingo and grammatical...

Special to The Seattle Times

For tens of thousands of adults in Washington, the road to a new or better job is paved with English jargon, slang, lingo and grammatical obstacles.

Often, that means these job-seekers, to whom English is a foreign language, can't even get their "foot in the door" because they don't know what that American cliché means.

That's why colleges and universities throughout the state are adding more English classes and changing the way they offer these courses to meet diverse employment and career needs of adults.

Formerly dubbed ESL — English as a Second Language — classes, many of the courses now carry an ELL (English Language Learner) or ELP (English Language Program) acronym in their title.

Nearly 30,000 limited-English-speaking adults around the state who want to improve their new language skills for work are taking classes that range from basic literacy and job training at local community and technical colleges to business-presentation courses at the University of Washington.

"I think the old way of thinking — people just want to improve their English — is gone," says North Seattle Community College English-as-a-Second-Language instructor Barbara Bell. "Over the last three years, more and more, we're hearing 'I want to get a job.' 'I want to keep my job.' 'I want a better job.' "

Learning to speak careers

For details about the new ESL jobs program and the courses covered, contact these schools:

Bellevue Community College: Certified nursing assistant.

Lake Washington Technical College: Industrial-plant maintenance.

Renton Technical College: Certified nursing assistant.

Shoreline Community College: Automotive and manufacturing.

South Seattle Community College: Integrated computer-application help desk.

Suzanne Monson

That's why community and technical colleges have started focusing more on tying English skills directly into some work-force training programs.

This new Integrated Workforce/Basic Skills pilot program available at about a dozen colleges throughout the state means graduates are ready with the vocabulary they need for specific jobs.

At Renton Technical College, the program includes training for certified nursing assistants.

"We see that students struggle more with the language of their technical specialty than they do with just the English — especially medical terminology," says Marty Heilstedt, vice president for instruction at the college. "So, for example, in one class, we team-teach with one ESL instructor and one biology instructor."

"Students are much more motivated to learn English when they have practical, hands-on skills they can be learning at the same time," says Suzy Ames, communications director for the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

"Ten years ago, we used to tell ESL students: 'You need English to progress. After that, we'll teach you practical skills.' But with adults, they need to know how these English skills are going to benefit them. This career track is phenomenal because students are much more motivated," Ames said.

Not all adult ESL students are entry-level, however.

Many of those in South Seattle Community College's nursing program were professionals in their homelands, says program director Collette Swan. Their limited English skills prevented them from practicing health care in this country.

Of the 100 students who apply for Swan's nursing program, only 36 are admitted. On a campus where 49 percent of students speak foreign languages, nearly 89 percent of her nursing students are considered ESL students.

"These are savvy people," says Swan. "We have an M.D. from Mexico, two doctors from the Philippines and a handful of nurses from other countries."

One, she adds, was cleaning houses before completing the licensed practical nursing program at South Seattle Community College.

Most community colleges have set up a six-level system that places ESL students in a class based on their English proficiency.

Level 1 is set up for those who cannot yet answer questions about their name, home country, address or employer in English.

Level 6 is for students who are ready to enter a college-level English 101 reading/writing course.

"What we're seeing is the drop-off [in enrollment] between Level 3 and 4," says North Seattle instructor Bell. "Level 4 is where they're able to get out into the work force and find adequate jobs."

That's why Bell designs classes that entice ESL students to continue improving their English.

When it comes to employment readiness, she teaches her students about more than just English reading and writing. Bell is a believer in taking students on field trips to job fairs where they can practice their skills.

"All of them are really scared of this, but I tell them 'Now that you've studied in the classroom, it's time to stick your toe in the water,' " says Bell.

"This is good timing because they're not under any pressure to find a job and pay the rent next month," she said. "I want them to go and observe and listen to see what people say and how they say it, to see what people are wearing."

That's the type of practical training June Choi would have liked when she came to Seattle more than six years ago.

Now a manager at Pan Pacific Trading, a Japanese seafood company doing business in Seattle, Choi initially struggled with the limited English she could recall from school in Japan.

In her job, Choi needed to speak English about half the time while coordinating business in Alaska, Canada, Korea, China and Japan.

She enrolled in a University of Washington Business English class earlier this year because she wanted to "sound more like a businesswoman," she said.

"The thing was, none of the people I worked with would correct my English. There are a lot of ways to learn English, but the best way is to take a class. I needed somebody to correct my English.

"Now I have much more confidence when I'm meeting clients," says Choi. "I use more words. Instead of 'up' and 'down,' I use more professional words, like 'increase' and 'decrease.' "

Not only did her employer pay for the class, but shortly after finishing the course, Choi earned a promotion.

While ESL enrollment has sagged at community colleges over the past few years, enrollment at the University of Washington's English Language Programs (ELP) is up.

"Our daytime classes have shown an increase in enrollments of close to 28 percent over the last five years, and our evening classes have increased by 13 percent," says Anita Sokmen, coordinator of ELP marketing at the UW. "These increases are due to the increased number of class offerings, particularly in the daytime."

With dozens of courses to choose from, including some paid for by large employers and provided on-site to workers, the UW has been averaging 2,833 ELP students annually since 1999.

"I really admire our students, because it's very hard to go to another country where you're competing with native speakers in the workplace," says Sokmen.

"They're very courageous. As a result, they're wonderful to work with."

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