Nonnative speakers adapt with language program
Dec. 21, 2008
Eugene Scott -
Dec. 21, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
For more than
two decades, non-English speakers wanting a better command of the English
language have turned to a non-profit group mainly serving residents of the
Unlimited Potential is a family literacy program housed in a nondescript room at
Southern Baptist Temple Church, but is well-known among its target audience.
While each class consists of about 22 students, the waiting list for the program
is at least 100 names long.
"We don't announce it to a lot of people. They come in from word of mouth, from
past participants," said Sandra Amarillas, Unlimited Potential program
Limited resources keep Unlimited Potential from serving the number of people
requesting services. The organization relies heavily on individual donors but
also on community grants. Season for Sharing, the annual campaign of The
Arizona Republic and 12 News, has given $76,500 to help fund the two-year
Most of the students are mothers who must care for their children.
The mothers "want to
English mainly to help the kids with school because they want them
to do good. They want to be able to help them with their homework or even to
translate at the doctor's office," Amarillas said.
Amarillas, a former participant of the program, said the first year she teaches
what she calls "Survival English." The second year is a little advanced.
"What they're going to learn here is the basics - learn how to say their name
and where they're from, asking and understanding the questions, a lot of writing
and listening, trying to practice with the speaking," she said.
Participants have even taken on the responsibility of keeping the tuition-free
Unlimited Potential going. They've raised $600 at fundraisers like yard sales
The learning curve for many Unlimited Potential students is significant. Some
have never had formal education in their native language, much less English. The
program meets for three hours a day, four days a week.
"One woman never went to school because she had to work since she was young,
because she had to help her parents," Amarillas said. "If I feel like a student
should be with me another year, I'll let them stay another year so they can
Commitment is not a problem for Unlimited Potential students, Amarillas said. On
average, at least 90 percent of students attend class daily.
However, some students' education has been interrupted by problems related to
"There have been some in the second-year group that have dropped because they
have to help their husbands. They have to find jobs so they can help with the
bills and put food on the table," Amarillas said.
That dedication to becoming bilingual is what made Amarillas want to work with
Unlimited Potential full time 14 years ago, after enrolling in the program to
work toward her high-school-equivalency diploma.
"I know the struggles of learning the language," she said. "I was once the one
who had to help my family and interpret for everything."