June 4, 2009 in Washington Voices

Beating the language barrier

Yasmeen Perez gives back as an ESL volunteer
By The Spokesman-Review
DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com photo

Yasmeen Perez is a senior at Gonzaga Prep and plans to attend Gonzaga University to pursue an electrical engineering degree. danp@spokesman.com
(Full-size photo)

When Yasmeen Perez arrived for her first day of third grade at Linwood Elementary, she did not speak a word of English, even though she had been born in Seattle.

“I lived in Mexico for eight years,” she said. “Spanish was my first language.”

Her parents, both natives of Mexico, had moved back and forth between Mexico and the United States, then came to Spokane to open the Casa de Oro restaurant on Argonne Road. The school district hired a tutor for her, but the woman didn’t know a word of Spanish. She would point at objects and say their name in English repeatedly. “It was so difficult,” said Perez, 18. “No one knew Spanish, and I knew no English.”

Not only could she not follow the teacher in class, but she couldn’t make any friends. “I felt so out of the loop. I couldn’t really connect with anyone because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was hard. I would go home crying. But I got through it.”

By sixth grade, she had English mastered pretty well, but it remains her least favorite class. She attended St. Thomas More Catholic School for seventh and eighth grade, then moved on to Gonzaga Prep. Her parents are great believers in Catholic education, Perez said. “They’re both strong Catholics,” she said. “Prep was always where I was going to go.”

She likes going to a smaller school where people help each other. “I know all my classmates,” she said. “I think it’s pretty cool. I like how the students can bond with the teachers and counselors really well.”

She’s known as a hard worker at school. When it came time to pick a foreign language to study, she didn’t take the easy way out and take Spanish. She signed up for French instead. “I’ve always wanted to go to Paris,” she said. “I wanted to learn French so I wouldn’t be completely lost when I went to France.”

She can write down that goal as nearly accomplished. She has a trip to France planned for this summer, and she’ll get a chance to practice what she has learned. “I can understand it,” she said. “I just can’t speak it very well. I would like to live in France for a semester or a year.”

When she gets back from her trip, she plans to enroll at Gonzaga University to study electrical engineering. Her cousin is an engineer, and he planted the seed that got her to consider a field not many women pick. “He talks about it, and it sounds pretty fun,” she said. “It’s supposed to be hard, though.”

She’s willing to give it a try because it sounds interesting. “I guess I have to try it before I decide.”

Her life has nearly come full circle as the girl who struggled to learn English now helps teach others how to speak English through an English as a second language program at Spokane Community College. It is part of the community service required of every Gonzaga Prep student.

She’ll help the students with translations, but tries not to speak to them in Spanish because she wants them to get practice in their new language. Her reward comes when their faces light up when they are able to use the correct word. “I understand how they feel because I was in their shoes,” she said.

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