Merlene Davis: A taste of language immersion

Chethik Herald-Leader

On most weekdays, Neil Chethik enters the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning through the basement door. He's treated there to the sounds of immigrants and refugees speaking their native tongues as they seek to learn English.

"I hear all these different languages, and the sound is like music," said Chethik, the center's executive director. "On a typical day in our building, at least a dozen languages are spoken. The Carnegie Center is one of the most diverse places in town."

Even though he doesn't understand the words, he appreciates the melodies of the languages and diversity of the people speaking in their native tongues.

Some research has found that listening to native speakers and the sound patterns of a new language helps us learn that language quicker. Too often, however, some people are offended when a foreign language is exchanged near them. They perceive it as an insult or rudeness.

But Chethik wants us to take listening a step further. He hopes we will come to the Carnegie Center to not only hear the languages, but also learn about the people speaking them as a means of calming those fears.

Chethik is inviting all of us to an International Eating & Reading Night on Oct. 25 at the center.

The evening will begin with members of the immigrant and refugee communities sharing dishes from their cultures and all of us bringing food that reflects our heritage in the Bluegrass.

"I'm bringing matzah ball soup," Chethik said, adding that others plan to have sushi and dishes made with grape leaves.

The dinner will be followed by an open mic session and then seven featured guests will read poetry in their native languages: Hadil Abdalla in Arabic; Katerina Stoykova-Klemer in Bulgarian; Remi Bellocq in French; Vijay Singh in Hindi; Jeehyun Lee in Korean; Kasia Pater in Polish; and Jeremy Paden in Spanish. Each will also translate the poetry into English.

"We love all these languages and want to celebrate them," Chethik said. "We also want to help immigrants feel welcome in Lexington."

The immigrants Chethik overhears at the center are participating in courses teaching English as a second language. The courses are held in the basement offices there of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College at Operation Read program.

Wilma Clapp, coordinator, said the free classes at the center are taught by volunteers, some of whom have been with the program for five years or more.

Those volunteers work with immigrants from throughout the world, including countries such as Iraq, Bhutan, Brazil, Nepal, Afghanistan, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Mexico, Honduras, the Congo, Burundi and Uganda. Clapp said some are referred by the Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Each student is evaluated and then placed appropriately, she said. Last year, 90 students were enrolled. This year, there are 50.

"Some cannot read or write even in their own language," she said. "To see them work up to ... gains is tremendously awesome."

Clapp said Chethik hears the students in between classes because only English is spoken in class.

The international evening at the center this week "is one way of doing something that will bring us together over food and reading," she said, adding that the exposure to other cultures could nurture better world understanding in Kentucky.

"No matter what country they come from, they are just people like we are," she said.

Chethik said the evening will conclude with the reading in English of the 33-word poem My People by Langston Hughes, one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. That reading will be followed by translations in all of the languages represented that evening.

"It will be a sharing of the literary and the culinary," he said.

And maybe we will shed some of our fears of the unknown as well.