Learning English Remains the Challenge

Olga Mamaeva (left) and her classmate Carnelia Simon. Mamaeva commutes to the Canarsie library from Park Slope twice a week to learn English.
Olga Mamaeva (left) and her classmate Carnelia Simon. Mamaeva commutes to the Canarsie library from Park Slope twice a week to learn English.


On Christmas Eve in Times Square three years ago, Olga Mamaeva fell in love with New York City. When the single mother returned to Russia from her vacation shortly afterward, she applied for the green card lottery. “And I won,” she said. “I am a lucky one. Really.”

Mamaeva, 36, and her son, Peter, 10, moved from Moscow to New York nearly two years ago. Like many immigrants before, she came because she believed her child would have a chance of a better education in the United States. And she is right about being lucky.

The green card lottery, known officially as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, is the only way for people like Mamaeva to move legally to the United States. She has no family or employer here to sponsor her and she is not a political refugee.

According to ImmigrationRoad.com, a Russian national had a 1.4 percent chance of winning the visa lottery in 2012. And even that small chance may be vanishing. Congress is considering ending the lottery in favor of a program to admit more foreigners with expertise in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Mamaeva has one additional large hurdle to conquer before she can fully enjoy her new life. She’s still struggling with English.

“My son speaks perfect English, because everything is easier for children,” she said. She studied English in high school back home, but never practiced it. “In my country, we are too shy to speak with foreigners or in a different language,” she said.

Now Mamaeva, who lives in Park Slope, is attending a free class in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at the public library in Canarsie. The Brooklyn Public Library offers 13 free English classes throughout the borough. Every year, 600 to 700 students attend the beginner and intermediate classes. The students need to be 17 or older, and must have completed at least primary education in their native language “so they have some concept of text already,” said Erna Golden, who manages the literacy program.

Mamaeva certainly qualifies. She holds a teaching degree from a Russian university. And she is determined to make progress. She decided to move into a neighborhood without many Russians because she wanted her son to engage with locals.

She has no regular job yet. She pays her bills by babysitting for friends. To get back into her field, she needs to “get a license,” she explained, “but before that, I have to study English.”

For her, it’s easy to write, watch television or read in English. “But it’s really hard to speak with people, especially by phone,” she said. Expressing herself is a challenge, “I am adult and I speak like a children,” she said. “I want to express my ideas and exchange ideas.”

Olga Mamaeva struggles the most with spoken English.
Olga Mamaeva struggles the most with spoken English.

The students in her English class are highly motivated and want to learn, said teacher Mary Bennardo. In the past three years, the focus in the program has shifted. Now civics is equally important as language skills.

On a recent Saturday morning, Bennardo made her students think about politics. “You are the president or the mayor,” she said. “Where will you spend the money? Education, buses, roads, cheap apartments, libraries?” Someone quickly shouts out, “Medicaid.”

After considering the options, Mamaeva and her classmate Carnelia Simon from Haiti, decide that they would spend money on education and small businesses. The idea behind teaching civics is to learn how to engage as a citizen in the entire community, said program manager Golden.

Moscow and New York are both “great and huge and overcrowded and with crazy energy,” Mamaeva said. The main difference for her is that Americans like everything to be convenient and practical.

She is enjoying her more convenient life – like having her son’s karate studio just two blocks away from home. “In my country, we don’t worry about convenience and practical,” she said. “We like it when it’s emotional and chaos.”

Mamaeva already had a strategy on how to progress in English after the class ended in mid-December.

“It’s a good idea to get a job – and find a boyfriend,” she said. “It’s my plan, actually.” That way, she explained, learning the language would come with emotions.


This post was originally published in Voices of NY
This post was originally published in Voices of NY