With its nanotech and computer chip industries, the Capital Region attracts highly skilled professionals from around the world.
But if you are a foreign national, your job here requires English language skills. And what about your spouse? Life in the United States can be lonely and isolating if you don’t speak English.
“We know that it has nothing to do with intelligence or training or degrees,” says Kim Andersen, president of the Capital Region Language Center in Colonie. “We are talking about people with doctorates, people who are brilliant in their fields. They just haven’t had the training in English that they need to become fully successful here in a business climate. It’s important for people who are living here to learn English for their own confidence and advancement in the workplace.”
Last month, to keep pace with the increasing number of foreign nationals, the Capital Region Language Center launched Empire State English, which expands its English as a second language (ESL) program.
Newly licensed by the state, Empire State English is now able to teach anyone who wishes to improve their English skills in addition to individuals who are sponsored by a corporation or university.
“A typical profile of our English students includes researchers, scientists, post-docs, international students, TAs and, in some cases, spouses of all of those people,” says Andersen.
“Given the state of nanotech and the semiconductor world and what we’ve seen in the last couple of years, those numbers are certainly on the rise. I think there are a lot of other people in the Capital Region that are likely interested in ESL, and now we’re in a major outreach.”
The Capital Region Language Center began 10 years ago as Las Mariposas, a Spanish-language school in Ballston Spa, with Andersen as its founder and only teacher.
Today, Andersen’s school has 30 teachers and offers instruction in 11 languages to more than 600 adults and children.
Classes are held at its main office in Colonie and at a second site in Malta. Instructors also travel to schools and businesses all over the Capital Region.
CRLC has more than 20 corporate and community clients, including Albany Molecular Research Inc.; SEMATECH, an Albany-based semiconductor manufacturing technology firm; Umicore of Glens Falls, a global materials technology firm; the University at Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering; the SI Group; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The College of Saint Rose and the Saratoga Springs City School District.
In a typical ESL class, students who speak different first languages are grouped together, about six to a class, according to their English skills.
The Colonie office is bright and colorful, with maps and photographs of the world’s people and places hanging on the walls and a shelf of children’s books in French, Spanish and Chinese.
ESL students meet in one of five small classrooms, each with table and chairs, a white board and a big paper lantern made of Asian cacao leaves.
On a recent morning, laughter erupted from a room where a group of young women were practicing their English together.
“Empire State English serves both as an English program and a social gathering place so people can meet others that are in similar language positions,” Andersen says.
Students are tested for placement in one of 21 levels of English and assigned to one of four ESL teachers.
“The more focused the teaching can be, the more efficient the class can be,” she says.
Because CRLC offers more than ESL, its offices are busy day and night, with instructors teaching Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Korean and American Sign Language.
Spanish draws the most students because Andersen started the school with Spanish and then added the other languages as interest grew.
“German is very strong,” she says. “We have a lot of German students, both adults and children,” and some are American families connected to Global Foundries, she says.
Families with adopted children bring them in for classes in Spanish, Mandarin or Korean when they are teenagers. “It’s to introduce them to their language and culture,” Andersen says.
“We also have bicultural families. The dad is Puerto Rican but doesn’t speak Spanish at home. The child realizes Spanish is fun. They can speak with Grandma and Grandpa.”
Andersen’s interest in other cultures began when she was a girl in Connecticut, reading National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines.
She earned degrees in Spanish and education at George Washington University, and in California she taught math and science to Spanish-speaking children.
She and her husband, Chris Andersen, worked as Peace Corps volunteers for four years in Paraguay, and their two children were born there. After the family moved from Paraguay to Ballston Spa, Kim Andersen opened Mango Tree, a international boutique that sells only fairly traded imports, and then Las Mariposas. Andersen and her husband, a science teacher in the Shenendehowa schools, are co-owners of Mango Tree.
In Ballston Spa, she was part of a campaign that designated the village as the only fair-trade municipality in New York state. The Andersens are also enthusiastic supporters of Ballston Spa’s monthly art night, and Mango Tree is one of the venues.
On Feb. 15, Kim Andersen planned to lead a Spanish language immersion trip to the Dominican Republic, where participants will visit fair-trade cacao farms.
For more information on Empire State English, go to www.esenglish.org or call 729-5407. For information about the Capital Region Language Center, visit www.crlcalbany.org or call 729-5407.
To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.