Eduardo Soares came to Philadelphia from Brazil in 1999 and managed to pick up a little English.
Four months ago, the 39-year-old self-employed carpenter decided to formalize his English education. He enrolled at the Rhawnhurst-based Philadelphia Language Center.
“I came here because I need to speak and understand English,” he said.
Specifically, Soares needed to learn English to pass the test to become a United States citizen. Earlier, he failed the written part. He also wanted to be able to better converse with his three daughters, ages 6, 8 and 12 and students at Rhawnhurst Elementary School.
So far, he’s done well at the Philadelphia Language Center.
“It’s helping a lot. Before I came here, my writing and spelling were terrible. Now, they’re much better,” he said.
How much better? A month ago, he passed the written portion of the citizenship test and is now an American.
The Philadelphia Language Center, located at 7708 Castor Ave., bills itself as “your passport to a world of languages.”
The husband-and-wife team of Dale and Jessica Winterbottom bought the business in May 2011 and changed the name from Wizard Language Center.
Jessica, a native of Brazil and a former teacher at Wizard, is the center’s director. Her husband, a U.S. native and full-time accountant, handles the finances.
The couple also own BCE Consulting, which is located next door. That company offers the immigrant communities services such as passport renewal and photos, bookkeeping, insurance, faxing, translation, interpretation, income tax preparation and notary public.
As for the Philadelphia Language Center, the primary focus is teaching English as a second language in eight on-site classrooms. The students’ mother tongues include Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Hindu, Urdu, Italian, French and German.
Jessica, who came to the United States four years ago, said there’s a special relationship between her and the students.
“We’re all immigrants,” she said. “I know how difficult it can be to go grocery shopping, to the bank or to take the bus.”
Classes are held Monday through Thursday nights and Sunday mornings. The classes last for 16 weeks, and students can sign up for 64 or 192 hours.
The cost is $1,100, including the registration fee and books, for the 192-hour course. The fee is $58 for the 64-hour course.
Testing is done monthly. Class size does not exceed 10.
“Students get individual help from teachers,” Dale Winterbottom said.
In beginner levels, students learn enough of the language to be able to take care of their basic health, food, occupational and family needs.
In the intermediate levels, there’s a focus on letter and essay writing; the reading and analysis of print media; and the study of poetry, short stories and one-act plays.
In the advanced level, students are expected to read independently, contribute to class discussions and participate in group debates.
As part of the course, staffers take the students to movie theaters and American icons ranging from the Liberty Bell to McDonald’s.
When the students become frustrated, Jessica and her staff smile and say, “Everything will be OK.”
Still, the job is to get these immigrants to speak the language of their new country. That can be a challenge for immigrants who cling to their native languages when they’re at stores and restaurants, watching television and communicating at the work place.
The center employs an immersion methodology.
“From day one, we work on the target language,” Jessica said.
The center is staffed by 12 experienced teachers. Stewart Bonner is one of them. He’s a full-time teacher of English as a second language at Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
At the language center, he teaches an advanced grammar class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He believes the setting is conducive for learning. He calls Jessica Winterbottom “Mrs. Smile.”
“This place has a special charm to it. This is a place with a heart. It is so warm. It’s an international Mom and Pop,” he said.
Many of the students come to the center tired after working all day, which presents an additional challenge for teachers.
“You have to engage the students,” Bonner said. “Everybody likes to talk about themselves, and I ask them questions all the time.”
Abdelelah Habib, who was born in Jordan and serves as an independent consultant, eagerly recruits students to the center.
“There’s a very nice family atmosphere in this school,” he said.
Sultan Alsuwaidi, a 37-year-old from the United Arab Emirates, first came to the United States in 1999 and lived in Arizona for four years. He spent six months in 2007 in Baltimore where two of his children were being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He moved to Center City last October so his children could be cared for at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Recently, he decided to improve his understanding of the English language.
“I talked to Mr. Habib. I wanted to learn English so I could go outside and speak to people,” he said through Habib’s translation.
Marcelo Batista, 38, moved from Brazil to New Jersey in 2002. He relocated to Rhawnhurst the following year.
A carpenter, he plans to remain in the United States and realizes he has to be able to communicate with his co-workers, bosses and all American citizens. He’s on his way to a command of the English language, he said, thanks to the Philadelphia Language Center.
“It’s helping a lot. Before, I had problems speaking. Now, I’m talking better,” he said. ••
Enrollment is open at any time. Call 215-745-0243, visit www.philadelphialanguagecenter.com or check out the Philadelphia Language Center page on Facebook.