About two weeks ago, a Spanish-speaking Selbyville Public Library patron stood near the front door, dangling a set of keys in front of Jill DiPaolo, the director of the library.
The middle-aged man was trying to ask DiPaolo a question, using the keys as a prop. But since she doesn’t speak much Spanish, the conversation wasn’t going anywhere.
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” DiPaolo said.
As it turned out, the man had lost his keys and was looking for the library’s lost-and-found.
A Spanish-speaking library employee helped him locate them, but realizing that she only works part time and that a host of Selbyville’s large Spanish-speaking population uses the library, DiPaolo has once again used the library to try to bridge the language gap.
Three weeks ago, after a layoff of almost one year, she has brought back the library’s English-as-a-Second-Language class.
“There’s definitely a need for it,” said DiPaolo, who remembers a time when there were more than 20 people enrolled in the class.
“I knew it was a program we had to implement (again).”
When the library decided to reintroduce the class, Joan Loewenstein, an employee in Selbyville, volunteered to help.
Although she doesn’t speak any Spanish, the former director at the Frankford Public Library gladly took on the position of teaching the town’s large Spanish speaking-population a little bit of English.
“They come in and use the computers. They use the library a lot,” she said. “There are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in the area.”
Hispanics and Latinos, in fact, make up the largest minority population in Selbyville, a town of almost 1,700 residents.
While Caucasians account for more than 71 percent of town’s population, 21 percent of the town’s residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to 2000 Census Bureau information, which a large number compared to its neighboring towns.
In contrast, in the 2000 study, the government information-collecting agency found that Hispanics and Latinos make up only a third of a percent of the population in nearby towns, such as Millville, Ocean View and Fenwick Island.
Of the 347 Hispanic and Latino residents the Bureau counted in Selbyville, 267 were born outside of the United States and 289 speak a language other than English at home.
Maria G. Hernandez — a 56-year-old Vera Cruz, Mexico, native and one of about five students enrolled in the class — is certainly one of them.
After moving from Mexico a little more than a year ago to be with her husband, she said she wanted to learn English to get by, carry on conversation, and possibly even find a job.
Juan Carlos Hainez, one of her classmates, is in a similar situation.
Hainez works for a plumbing company in Ocean City and said that he needs to learn how to speak at least some English to get by at his job.
“Everybody speaks English. No one speaks Spanish,” he said as he readied himself for the third week of the class. “You need English in everything.”
When the class started, Loewenstein taught her students the basics of the language, teaching them how to pronounce and read the letters of the alphabet, for example. She then taught them practical information, such as how to introduce themselves to someone, how to say please and thank-you, and how to correctly pronounce their own addresses.
Loewenstein said she sticks with everyday, practical information and stays away from teaching her students rules of the English language. That might get too confusing, she said.
“This is not classroom English,” Loewenstein emphasized. “This is conversational English.”
Hernandez did say, however, that even learning practical English can be confusing, especially for someone her age. Growing up in Mexico — although she didn’t learn Spanish in school because she grew up poor and didn’t attend grade school — it was her native language. Her family spoke Spanish. Her friends spoke Spanish. It was the language she grew up with and became accustomed to. And, now, in her mid-50’s, it’s hard to abandon, even if just in public.
“It’s not the same as being little and learning,” she said as her 12-year-old granddaughter, Tania Hernandez, translated. “When you’re little, all you think about is school and learning.”
Now that she’s older, she said, she has more things to worry about, such as her family she left in Mexico. And the fact that her teacher doesn’t speak much Spanish is another barrier for Hernandez in the class.
A previous teacher could point out an object in Spanish, then in English to make it an easier transition. But Loewenstein said that, despite the troubles that face someone like Hernandez in the class, her students will get by because “they want to learn.”
The fact that she doesn’t speak any Spanish will even end up being a positive for her students, Loewenstein said.
“I speak only a few words,” she added. “But in a way that’s good. I don’t want them to depend on the Spanish.” She wants them to learn the English, she said, championing her own kind of language immersion program. But the emphasis is on helping the students learn the everyday language skills they need. “I want to help if I can and maybe even pick up a few words in Spanish,” Loewenstein noted.