SOUTH CHICAGO — Until two years ago, Angelica Larios spoke only Spanish.
Watching her eyes beam as she worked through a recent English lesson at the Mary Ward Center, it’s clear she has adopted another language.
Asked about her learning experience, Larios said, "Me gusta todo. (I like it all). It’s very good for me. I need to speak English to communicate with others.”
Larios is among the 144 mostly female students who take part in the English as a Second Language program at the center, a Catholic ministry dedicated to social justice. Every week, students come for an hour, working one-on-one in a comfortable environment with the center’s five nuns, improving their English writing, reading and speaking skills.
Larios recently was teamed with a new teacher, Sister Lorraine Crawford. During their first meeting, Crawford instructed Larios to read and repeat phrases to learn English verb tenses.
Larios said it over and over with increasing confidence.
“Yesterday, I went to my work.”
“Today, I am going to my sister’s house.”
“Tomorrow, I will go to the laundry.”
“This is a non-classroom atmosphere,” said Sister Mary Howard Moriarty. “This is more like a home. Our program gives these women a time to improve themselves academically, spiritually and emotionally. We also help them feel self-confident.”
Opened in a two-story, 19th-century house in 1999, the ministry quickly recognized the demand for English-language programs for the neighborhood’s large Hispanic population, mostly people from Mexico and Central America. The program, for Spanish-only speakers, began in 2000.
Learning sessions are intimate and engaging. Each nun takes a student into a separate room, either an office or cozy living room, and conducts lessons tailored to an individual's skill level. Language concepts most Americans take for granted can take weeks to impart. There have been students who stuck with the program for more than 10 years, Moriarty said.
Though the ESL classes are free, applicants must receive a recommendation from an existing student. Forty people are on the waiting list. Students live mostly in South Chicago, but some come from as far as the city’s West Side.
The center also holds computer classes in the basement that focus on basic typing and language skills. Several from the center’s citizenship class have gone on to become U.S. citizens. A weekly group called Mujeres de Luz (Women of Light), aims to improve self-esteem through spiritual discussion.
“What we do here is all about making them feel welcomed and loved,” Sister Christa Parra said. “We really strive to encourage and build their confidence, especially in English-speaking settings.”
Larios, mother of a 13-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy, thrives under the specialized attention she receives in the ESL classes. Though the class is challenging for her, it has made life easier, including at her job at a Walmart in Hammond, Ind., as well as when talking with her children.
“I needed to come here to learn my second language,” Larios said. “Es muy muy dificil (It’s very, very difficult) to learn English. But I’m trying.”