Refugees From Southeast Asia Living In Rural Colorado Tackle The Language Barrier

Sep 2, 2015

Lae Sari, a Karen refugee, learns about the U.S. flag at an ESL class in Delta, Colorado.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

As anyone who's ever taken a foreign language class knows, it’s hard to learn another language. For immigrants to this country, that challenge can affect their whole lives. According to census data, in 2013, there were more than 25 million people in the United States with limited English proficiency.  And, in Colorado's rural Delta County, a group of refugees from Southeast Asia is trying to overcome this barrier. 

In the community room at a migrant housing complex in Delta, Colorado four adults are studying the U.S. flag. They are ESL students— English as a second language — and their teacher is preparing them for the citizenship test. 

I do feel negotiating in English is a basic need, a fundamental one for the livelihoods and the success of these adults and their children.

These adults are Karen refugees from Myanmar, formerly known Burma. They fled violence and persecution in their homeland where the government seized their property and threatened their lives.

They lived in crowded refugee camps in Thailand before coming to the United States under a resettlement program.

A majority of the refugees from Myanmar who came to Colorado live on the Front Range. Though, some, like the adults in this classroom, relocated to Delta on the Western Slope. They came here for agricultural work and affordable housing. 

They feel safe now that they live in U.S. However, they face difficulties with jobs, healthcare, transportation, but there’s a bigger barrier, something at the root of it all: the English language.

Linguist Maria Thomas-Ruzic says it a vital tool for immigrants.

"I do feel that negotiating in English is a basic need, a fundamental one for the livelihoods and the success of these adults and their children," she says.

Thomas-Ruzic is with the University of Colorado, Boulder. She’s worked in the ESL field for over 40 years.

"Basically, the newcomer adult is facing conditions that make language learning in a hurry important," she says. "Language is the thing through which all of this life is negotiated."

Pla So Kay, 23, is Karen. He comes to the evening ESL class the Delta County Library District offers twice a week.

Pla So works at a Foster Farms chicken operation and wants to better his English because it’s something he uses daily. He believes improving this ability will lead to more opportunity.

"I use it for work and I started studying reading and writing," he says.

His teacher is Karen Andersen. This is her third year working with the Karen refugees.  

ESL teacher Karen Andersen, left, helps Karen refugee Ko Gi Hae with his lesson.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

"It’s had its challenges," says Andersen. "They have come with different educational backgrounds. Some have had no formal education [while] some have had a few years of formal education. So they come here with a wide range of abilities."

Thomas-Ruzic says when it comes to teaching another language the education level of a student matters.

"Basically, if someone has less than elementary school education that they need different kinds of support in going about their language learning," she says. "With a higher level of literacy and higher opportunity or access to schooling, students usually transfer what they learned in those contexts to another setting."

The Karen students also face another hurdle. Their language and writing system is very different from ours.

Thomas-Ruzic says you would expect it to be easier for a Spanish speaker to learn English because it’s in the same language family, but Karen is in a separate one. 

Bible verses written in the Karen language.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

 "The Karen language is part of a bigger language family that's called the Sino-Tibetan," she says. "[The Karen written system] is based on sound-symbol relations. It is definitely different from the alphabet we use." 

She says it’s also difficult to learn another language as an adult.

Karen refugee Lae Sari is a stay-at-home mother of seven. Her younger children speak fluent English. She wants to speak the language to keep up with them and understand the world around her.

She’s been taking ESL classes for five years, but still struggles. 

"Everything is hard: spelling and pronunciation, sentences [and] some words have many, many meanings," she says.

Andersen says despite the challenges the Karen students are progressing.

"Lae Sari, who you’ve interviewed, she told me the other day that she called the dentist because she had a toothache," she says. "And, she had talked to them and she was so proud...that she called and could do it. These are big accomplishments for these people and what we’ve talked about in class they are actually doing outside of the classroom."

This is the second story in an ongoing KVNF series about the Karen refugee community in Delta. The series is part of a reporting project for the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s 2015 fellowship on immigrant families.