English Classes Give West African Immigrants a New Lease on Life

Ceesay Conteh, Mama Niare, and Amienatta Sillah are all mothers and are originally from countries in West Africa.

It’s Thursday evening at 6 p.m. and the last of the students disperse from the halls of P.S. 154 to head home. But downstairs, a new class is just beginning on the ground floor of the Bronx elementary school.

Two women wearing black and white hijabs pull out their notebooks and pencils and begin to write down the lesson of the day. Today, students are focusing on how to introduce themselves in different scenarios. Ceesay Conteh, 42, and Amienatta Sillah, 46, are two of about a dozen students in the school’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class for adult learners. Both women are from Gambia and have lived in the Bronx for so long that they laugh when asked, but are only recently learning English through the school’s free ESOL program.

“I just come to learn English,” says Conteh. “To write and speak it good.” Other students in the room have similar motivations. Many of them are women, mothers, and immigrants who are here “to learn English for the future,” despite having lived in the U.S. for decades. This is not a strange occurrence, notes Jorge Beltran, a doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College and a lead development coach at The Center for the Professional Education of Teachers. According to Beltran, who is also an instructor at a community language program in the Bronx and an ESOL teacher, immigrants who move to cities like New York are more likely to preoccupy themselves with work and raising their families than learning English.

Ceesay Conteh is from Gambia, but she lives in the Bronx. Conteh is a home health aide and fluent in her native language, Soninke. She is taking English classes so she can become a more fluent English speaker.

Access to ESOL programs might also be another deterrent for immigrants. A 2012 report by The Center For An Urban Future, showed that there were 1.7 million New Yorkers lacking in English proficiency and only 4 percent were able to access state-funded ESOL classes. In 2015, the number of foreign-born New Yorkers in need of adult literacy classes ballooned to over 2 million, but in the city’s FY 2016 budget, there was a $6,000,000 cut in adult literacy programming, which resulted in the elimination of over 6,000 seats in various programs around the city and a waitlist of over 14,000 people. According to Kevin Douglas, Co-Director of Policy & Advocacy of United Neighborhood Houses, and a member of The New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy, there have been improvements in funding for adult education programs, but not enough to account for the growing number of New Yorkers who need access to these programs.

“We have had some modest growth in funding, in both the city and state levels in the last couple of years,” admits Douglas. “But it’s far and away from meeting where the actual need and demand for services is, unfortunately.”

In the FY 2018 budget, released in June of this year, there was a restoration of $12m for Adult Literacy programming that will help support programs like the one Sillah and Conteh are attending, which is run by the YMCA in partnership with P.S 154.

According to data from the United States Census, 37.4 percent of the population in the Bronx are foreign-born, with 75.7 percent from Latin America and 11.4 percent from countries in Africa, making it home to New York’s largest African population.The classroom is a medley of languages and an adequate representation of the ethnic diversity in the Bronx. Sillah, Conteh, and two other classmates communicate without hesitation in their native Soninke, four Hispanic female students speak in Spanish, and one Haitian woman translates the days of the week in French.  

As a result of their varied backgrounds, students in the class also have differing English proficiencies. Mamadou Bamba, a native of Côte d’Ivoire, is the only male in the class and has lived in New York for only three years. His English is halting and the class’s ESOL teacher, Agustina Almonte, makes frequent trips to his table, writing out incomplete sentences and encouraging him to fill the blanks with nouns that describe who he is.

August Almonte teaches English to students from a variety of countries.

“I am a what?,” Almonte asks as she writes in Bamba’s notebook. “I am a woman, I am a mother,” she says of herself.

“You are a man, Mamadou. Are you a father?” she asks.

Bamba nods shyly. Bamba, 42, is also an electrician and mechanic. During his time in New York, he was worked in a shop in the Bronx with other Ivorians like him who speak French, too.

In between teaching students the basics of noun-pronoun agreements in English, Almonte, 38, casually slips into Spanish for the benefit of the Spanish speakers in the class with little to no English proficiency. Despite the class’s purpose, Almonte sometimes encourages students to teach each other their various languages as they interact in class. According to Almonte, it helps create a sense of camaraderie in the classroom.

“I also want them to feel like their language is important,” Almonte said.

Reasons differ as to why the students want to learn English. During the class introduction, a student’s reason for taking the class is translated from Spanish to mean “to feel better in society.” For Conteh, who currently works as a home health aide, she would like a change in career—maybe working as a nurse, she says wistfully. The financial benefits to becoming proficient in English are a significant motivator. According to a 2014 study by the Brookings Institute, a Washington based public policy organization, working-age adults with a limited English proficiency earn 25 to 40 percent less than their English proficient counterparts, but the social benefits are equally as important.

“People need English proficiency to navigate the city, to navigate civic life, to build relationships and be part of a community,” said Douglas.

For Mama Niare, it’s the love of learning another language that pushed her to sign up. “I take the class because I love the class and because I love English now,” said Niare.

The mother of 8 is fluent in French, Bambara, and Soninke, and a little bit of Yoruba, but not English. Niare is from Mali and has lived in New York for 20 years. Before taking the classes, Niare, 49, lamented about not knowing how to fill out things like her first and last name or address on forms.  The height of her education before migrating to New York was an Arab school in Mali where she was taught French. Niare’s progress is obvious as she talks proudly about being able to fill out her daughter’s form for school this year.

“I love English now,” said Niare as she took notes.


To learn more about Adult Education programs in New York, visit The New York City Website, The New York Public Library and the YMCA.

Editors note: An earlier version of this story stated that PS 154 was a high school and the ESOL classes took place in the basement. PS 154 is an elementary school and classes take place on the ground floor of the school. We regret the error.