At an airport food court, two women were busy clearing tables, picking up discarded napkins and chatting amiably between themselves in Spanish. Their work was abruptly interrupted when a man angrily told them to “Speak English! You’re in America!” A kind-hearted customer deflected his tirade by placing herself between the man and the two workers who accepted her apologies without remark, other than to say, in English, “Thank you.”

It is an oft-repeated scene that brings to light not only the fears expressed by the person making the verbal assault, but also the challenges faced by immigrants tackling language learning well into adulthood. In a word, it’s incredibly difficult. And, there is science that supports those challenges.

Telluride has a thriving Telluride Adult English Classes program (TAEC) school piloted by Kathleen Morgan and staffed with certified language teachers who guide their willing students through the tangle of verbs, contractions, tenses and new vocabulary they must conquer to be able to fully immerse themselves in their new country. It is the most difficult task many of these immigrants will ever undertake. 

Few people understand that better than those teaching English to non-native speakers. Morgan has been TAEC’s program coordinator since 2008 and also serves as One To One Mentoring’s program manager. She also served as an English language learner specialist for the Telluride School District from 1995-2009.

She has spent hours in the trenches, working with local Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America. The teachers also see other students from around the globe. Morgan said it’s not just a new language that immigrants must learn.

“Learning a new language also means learning a new culture and becoming part of a new community, also known as acculturation,” Morgan said. “These are all experiences that do not happen in a defined timeframe, such as ‘in two years’ or follow a specific path.”

So, the admonishment to “Learn English,” is a demand that cannot be satisfied overnight, Morgan explains.

“For a typical 5th grader, 25-year-old adult or a 60-year-old grandparent, learning a new language to a high proficiency level will take 7-10 years,” she said. “Language proficiency involves the ability to understand what is being spoken, to speak and be understood, to comprehend what is read and to be able to convey comprehensible meaning in many types of writing. The acquisition of these skills is dependent on the individual’s ability to take on new information and retain it. If they are under extreme duress or trauma, acquisition of a language and associated acculturation can be impossible or very limited.”

It becomes an additional challenge to learn a new language if one’s education is limited in the first place.

“If their first language proficiency is limited these challenges will continue in their new language,” Morgan said. “In addition, someone who speaks and listens well in their new language is not necessarily proficient in reading and writing at the same level. Language learning takes dedication, determination and lots and lots of practice in a high variety of situations.”

Erin Spillane is a certified teacher of English as a foreign language with nine years of experience and the former coordinator of the Telluride Adult English Classes Program. She experiences first-hand the frustrations her students have as they grapple with a new language. “Learning a new language is so hard. At times, it’s the pits,” Spillane said. “There’s vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and then practicing the four skills of communication — speaking, reading, listening and writing. In the earliest stages, English can be bewildering and progress can feel slow.”

Students work through four levels, each one requiring around 100 hours of classroom time before moving to the next level. “For adults, the learning process can feel humiliating at times, or at the very least, daunting,” Spillane said. “And so much can depend on their own educational background. In Telluride’s English classes program, there are students with master’s degrees in engineering alongside students who didn’t finish high school.”

For non-native speakers, the simplest of tasks can throw obstacles in their path. Filling out forms, describing medical symptoms to a doctor, or enrolling children in school are all basic life skills the local TAEC program imparts to their students. Since language is a pathway to understanding a culture, learning English helps students assimilate into the community.

“If you think about moving to a new community, there is so much we need to figure out,” Spillane said. “How to find a doctor, what we need to enroll our kids in school, finding a place to live, which is so challenging here, how to sort the recycling, getting a library card. Now, imagine doing that in a language you don’t have. Those are just the basics of getting starting, never mind the other things we need to live full lives, like forming friendships, having a satisfying work life and a good social life. Learning English is necessary for all this to happen.” 

There are many misperceptions about language acquisition for the newly minted immigrant. Spillane pointed out that according to multiple studies and census data, language acquisition rates are virtually unchanged in the last 100 years. In other words, your German or Italian ancestors who came to the U.S .in the late 1800s and early 1900s learned their new language at the same pace that today’s largely Spanish-speaking immigrants do today. 

“There are obviously variations depending on socio-economic status, level of education and resources available, but if you are shouting in public at someone for not speaking English, besides having bad manners, you’re relying on misconceptions,” Spillane said.

The motivation level for students in TAEC is high, Morgan and Spillane agree.

“Work schedules, parenting and other adult concerns can derail well-intentioned students from attending classes, which makes learning a language more challenging,” Morgan said. 

Still, Spillane said, her students’ dedication is remarkable. “I know this will sound corny, but I am in awe of the students in the program. These guys are working very long hours, some have kids, some commute, and yet they find the time and energy to go to class week in and week out over years. Amazing.”

Telluride, as a community, is generally very supportive of the people who live, work and learn here, Morgan said. Still, sometimes the posters advertising a new round of classes will be torn down. But the Telluride School District and Telluride Foundation have made concerted and sustained efforts to support the local immigrant community through grant support, facilities donations and other resources. Facilitating their integration into the fabric of the community benefits everyone, Spillane and Morgan said.

“This integration is not just beneficial to immigrants, it’s a two-way street, I think,” Spillane said. “Telluride is definitely a better, richer place for having the immigrant groups that we have here.”

Students in the TAEC program that have achieved high proficiency in English — there are five levels, with Book 5 being the highest — become leaders within their own community and bridge gaps. Tri-County Health Network’s Kody Gerkin works as that organization’s community outreach manager. He said that last semester, Book 5 students took a “Citizenship Course” designed to help immigrants who are legal permanent residents become U.S. citizens. “

“This class included lots of information about immigration law, U.S. history and the U.S. political system,” Gerkin said. “These students transmit this information to other members of the immigrant community around dinner tables and in employee break rooms. This helps the immigrant community better understand how society functions in the U.S., but it also helps these Book 5 students be seen as experts within their own community.” 

Book 5 students also do translation work in the community, last year working on translating films for Mountainfilm’s Cine de las Montañas series. The result was the inclusion by a major festival of its immigrant community. 

“There is still a long way to go towards inclusion,” Gerkin admitted, “but opportunities like these for Book 5 students help to plug our immigrant community into what are often events almost exclusively attended by white, English-speaking locals.”

In the end, just showing up to class is a huge stride toward integration. “For students to make it to the registration table can take years of fielding obstacles, work schedules and the demands of home life,” Morgan said. “Anyone who shows up to class is a hero in my mind, and we are prepared to provide quality instruction and support for whatever time they can make to be there, be it one class or years of participation.”