Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Converse International School of Language students
Language Studies International occupies the top floor of an office building perched next to the Fifth Avenue bridge over Interstate 5. Steve Nicholson, its director since May 2001, seems young for the job, but his resume is loaded with experience in teaching and administration. As he describes the mission and marketing of his school, it becomes clear that teaching English to foreign students is big business. “The company is based in London. We have schools in the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. We also have a school in Paris that teaches French and one in Frankfurt that teaches German. Wherever we are, that’s what we teach.” When it opened in San Diego in 1989, Language Studies International joined a growing list of local schools that solicit students from foreign countries to live in San Diego while they learn English. “It’s just exploded. San Diego is a very strong market for this — very competitive. The first of our schools was in the Bay Area, and I think the owner visited San Diego and was taken with it. It’s been a popular destination.”
"If you don’t take attendance, that’s illegal."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
So all the extra teachers I hired in the summer had to be laid off — and I let them know up front that that’s what the deal is. Some of them are public school teachers who teach in the summer for something to do, so it’s not a problem for them.”
Since September 11, the subject of student visas has been touchy. When a foreign student applies for a student visa, he must submit a form proving that he has enrolled in an American school. “We give fhem the paperwork,” says Nichol-son.“It’s called an 1-20. We have to be satisfied that they’ve paid for the course. Once we have their application and all the other requirements are met, we give them this form, which they take to the consulate in their country. From there, the State Department decides whether or not they get a visa.”
The average age of the visiting English-language student is mid- to late 20s; at Language Studies International, it’s 24. The minimum age, usually 16, varies from school to school. Every school seems to have a dominant nationality or group of nationalities that attend, usually because of the marketing programs. Most of the English-language schools are promoted by travel agents. “All over Europe, Asia, and South America are these sort of travel agencies that specialize in travel/study courses. So let’s say a student wants to come to San Diego to study English. They will go to an agency, and our marketing department sets up deals with the agencies where they get a commission to send students to us.
“Right now, we’re probably 40 percent Swiss. For some reason, San Diego really attracts a lot of Swiss students. They love San Diego. I’m not sure of the other percentages, but it’s mainly Swiss, German, Italian, and smaller amounts of others. The Japanese are always a good, solid percentage but never a majority here. Since the company is based in the U.K., our marketing department is there.”
Visiting students tend to be well behaved. Run-ins with the law are rare, but problems with local customs abound. “They’ll forget that you can’t be drinking out in the open in public or drinking under 21, especially at the beach. It’s so much freer in Europe that they have a hard time grasping some of those concepts. One common problem is that they’ll forget that they need to carry around their passport and documents, then they’ll visit Mexico and try to come back. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I forgot my I-20 and passport!’ and be detained for questioning, sometimes for hours. The authorities will call us and we’ll have to verify who they are and what they’re doing.
“People come with all sorts of expectations. Some are legitimate and some really aren’t. It’s really hard to make every student happy all the time. They’ll hear some really odd things about the U.S. They don’t know what our cities are like, and many don’t realize that you really can’t travel well without a car. They may be expecting to be able to walk from their host family’s house to the school, not realizing that the commercial district downtown is not where a lot of people are living. They can’t just jump on a bus and be here in 10 minutes. It’s going to be more like 30 or 40 minutes. Or they’ll be told by an agency that the school is on the beach! So they’ll complain! It takes 40 minutes to get to the beach by bus!’ ” One way the Immigration and Naturalization Service monitors language schools is by verifying student attendance. Nicholson says that the scrutiny has gotten more intense since September 11.“We’ve had several requests for records, where they are following up and making sure people have entered or left the country. They are in the process of initiating a huge new tracking system. All of the colleges and schools will have to cooperate and track people. Right now, if a student is supposed to come here and doesn’t show up, we don’t know if they entered the country or didn’t enter or what. Now they track students as they enter and let us know if they came into the country. When they attend, we let the INS know.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“I haven’t really noticed any difference in attitude or feeling with the students since 9/11. It’s surprising. Some of them really don’t take the rules very seriously. They think they can overstay their visas and things like that. We tell them,‘You have to follow the rules. You have to leave when it’s time to leave. You have to remain in school. If you don’t attend your classes, we’ll have to report you to the INS.’ Truancy isn’t usually a big problem. When it is, we talk to the people and let them know that they seriously have to follow up on their commitment. We notify the student first that they may not receive a certificate of completion for the course— that requires 80 percent attendance.”
The first rule of language schools is that the tuition will be paid. “A lot of times the students’ parents pay. And you can tell the difference between students who pay themselves or have someone else pay their way. A lot of times, their company or job will pay for them to come and study. If they’ve been saving up for this, they are always much more serious about it. They want their money’s worth.”
In a large field of competitors, schools try to set themselves apart by emphasizing selling points like accreditation, tuition, location, class size, certificate programs, and activities. “It’s competitive,” Nicholson says, “but honestly, it’s really a very friendly thing. We work together. I’m in contact with most of the other schools. Our niche is really for the Cambridge preparations courses. We are the authorized Cambridge testing center — none of the other schools are authorized to administer the exam. So the other schools will do preparation courses, but they have to send their students to us for the exams. It helps us a lot”
Language Studies International’s website does not disclose the price for tuition, but Nicholson says it averages about $750 a month. “If the student wants to live with a host family, there is an extra charge of $180 a week, which covers room, board, and two meals per day. We’ve been told by the host families that house our students that ours are among the best students they’ve had. I think ours tend to be more goal-oriented and serious. But I’m on the phone all the time with directors from the other schools and it’s very friendly. We help each other out. We don’t try to undercut or undermine each other at all.
“There’s only one place that I won’t name that all of the schools are unhappy with at the moment. They’re really going below us all. We’re all more or less the same as far as pricing and services, and we have our individual differences, but this place...” Nicholson’s face betrays disgust as he points behind him to a school directly across the street. It is the International Academy of English. He will not be the only language-school administrator to express frustration with this school. “Their place is so much below what everyone else is offering that — it sort of draws off students. They get the less serious students who want to stay longer, so they go over there and extend their stay.”
The frequent turnover of students keeps Nicholson’s job from becoming humdrum. “There’s a constant flow of really interesting people. For the most part, the ones who come here do so because they’ve planned it and put a lot of effort into coming here. They’re really interested in learning about the country, the culture, and everything the city has to offer. When I was a teacher, I felt like I learned more from them than they did from me. I always wanted to know how things were done in their country or how something in this country would compare to something similar in their country. A lot of them really seem to appreciate everything we do. A lot of times, traveling, I will visit people I’ve met when they came here. We have students who come again and again, which is a good indicator that they’ve enjoyed the experience.” Learning English is not an easy prospect. A language that borrows liberally from many other tongues, English is loaded with confusing words, like tough and rough, for example, which can lead new speakers to assume that through is pronounced thruff. Simple words like there, their, and they’re sound alike but have different meanings, and that makes understanding a conversation difficult. Newer colloquialisms such as “I’m all...” make no sense. To hear a person say, “I totally freaked out and, boy, was she pissed” can be baffling.
Two weeks before Christmas, I sit in on an intermediate English class at Language Studies International. The 12 students arc a balanced mix of Asians, Latin Americans, and Europeans. Suzie Kim, the teacher, begins with a game. She breaks the class into two teams and has a team leader from each side go to the board. Kim shows the class a sheet of paper with a series of lines and markings. The team members have to give clues to their leader at the board on how to draw the arrangement (actually characters from the Korean alphabet). When Kim gives the class permission to go, everyone starts shouting. “Down! Down! Draw a line this way! Make it go up! No! Easier! Erase that! There’s no line there! Don’t touch the line there. Make it like a G now. No! Like a 77 Vertical. Between the two lines, in the, uh, middle.” On each side, one team member seems to dominate, and it is from that student that the leader takes instructions. All the students struggle for words. The game lasts for nearly two minutes, until there is a clear winner. One of the Italian students apparently knows Korean, as he tells everyone what the character means. The teacher responds, “It doesn’t matter what it means. I just wanted you guys to get started speaking. Does anyone remember yesterday when we did tongue twisters?”
Students match up with their partners from the previous day. The pairs begin trying to say a series of tongue twisters aloud, correcting and helping each other. “Cheryl’s chilly cheap chip shop sells Cheryl’s cheap chips.”“Cat catchers can’t catch cats.”“Is there a pleasant peasant present?” “She’s a thistle sifter and she has a sieve of sifted thistles and a sieve of unsifted thistles she sifts into the sieve of sifted thistles because she’s a thistle sifter.”“Sheep shouldn’t sleep in a sack. Sheep should sleep in a shed.”
Kim tells me that the game is designed to improve pronunciation. “It breaks the monotony of bookwork, note-taking, and lectures. These students are at the level where they can express themselves, and they like to talk.” Any native English speaker would have difficulty saying these words in sequence, and the sound of foreign-born students contorting their mouths is agonizing. As Kim has individuals recite the tongue twisters, she says, “ Does that hurt?” This is a question she asks repeatedly, and it becomes apparent that most people arc so conditioned to speaking in a certain way that learning a new language actually causes pain. Kim has the class say thistle and reminds students of the word they studied yesterday, whistle, emphasizing the silent t. Some of the students sound like they are saying Cecil. The hardest sound for most of these students is the th combination. Kim announces that after the break they are going to watch a cartoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “Christmas is coming up, and that’s part of our culture. Almost every American child will end up watching this.”
Before the break, students open their textbook, Move Up, and read a section on law and order. They discuss the sound and meaning of obligatory, compulsory, libel, arson, murder, manslaughter, bribery, and blackmail. One student says bribery means,“I pay you $ 10 to kill Christophe.” Another student says, “I do it for free!” They all laugh. The word thrifty comes up, and when asked to define it, one student says it means cheap. A debate about the word’s meaning ensues. The class reads over a series of “blue laws” that are no longer in effect. One law prohibits dueling on Sunday. The Japanese students struggle to pronounce dueling. Another law prohibits the shooting of moose from airplanes. The class asks what a moose is. Arnaud, a French student, says, “You know Bambi? A moose is like Bambi with a big hood.” The teacher gives the class 30 seconds to scan the passage, and then they vote on which law is the strangest. Finally, they are instructed to answer the study questions without looking again at the selected reading.
This class is unusual because it has two students who are much younger than the rest. Romain Grangier, 17, and Tatiana Hochstrasser, 15, are both visiting from Switzerland. Romain, whose native language is French — he comes from Montreux — is the class cutup and betrays no shyness. “I came here because maybe I need English for my future job. Before I spoke English with some friends and learned a little from my father. I choose this school because, I don’t know, it is the only school for me that I remember. I live with a host family in Pacific Beach. I like San Diego. It’s cool, but I miss my country. I’ve been here three months and I’m leaving in two days. I don’t know what I want to do in the future. When I come here from Switzerland, I thought I reflect on my future job, but I don’t know. I would like to come back here again, not study, but with my friends.”
Tatiana’s English is slightly better than Romain’s. A native of Geneva, Tatiana speaks both French and German. Her English has a pronounced German accent.“English is very difficult to understand. The meaning of the words are not the same all the time and it is difficult. But it’s very important to know many languages, and English is on all the computers. I come to San Diego because it’s popular in Geneva for nice weather. People want to come to California. I have been here for three months, and I will stay for three months more. I miss my family and my boyfriend back home.” Her smile widens. “We talk on the phone. It is expensive, but he has a card. I live with a host family here in Clairemont. They are very nice. They have a son my age and he has a car and he drives me to school sometimes. Someday I would like to work in a bank.”
The Converse International School of Language occupies the second floor of a downtown high-rise, in the 600 block of Broadway. At 8:30 a.m., a dozen students speaking English in thick accents block the street entrance while they smoke cigarettes. Their voices sound cheerful. Up the stairs, an outside border of small classrooms surrounds a spacious lobby furnished with comfortable sofas and coffee tables. The administrative assistant passes out pastries to students as they look over assignments and discuss afternoon plans. Nearly 2000 foreign students will take English classes here in 2002. The school’s website shows that tuition runs between $160 and $200 per week. The weekly accommodation fee ranges from $130 to $180.
The spaciousness of the lobby creates a paradoxical effect: The students seem more relaxed than they did at Language Studies International, but their demeanor is more serious. Academic director Pamela Edwards-Mondragon, a New York native, has an air of East Coast decorum that seems to pervade the school “This year we’re 30 years old. I think we may be the oldest English-language school in San Diego. We started in Hillcrest, right across from where Berlitz used to be, on Upas — I think that was on purpose. We were there a long time. We’ve been down here about 12 years.”
Because it is December, Converse’s faculty numbers only 17 teachers. “Summer is a feeding frenzy,” Mondragon says. “We get up to maybe 35 teachers and close to 300 students. And it jumps like that almost overnight! It’s crazy.” Like Language Studies International, Converse requires its teachers to have a four-year degree, but further experience and certification are required. “They must all be certified by an organization that has more letters in its name than I can remember — the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education — they need a certification from that. And I prefer a year’s teaching experience. Salaries vary with experience. They range from $ 14.50 to $22 an hour.” Converse is also an ACCET-accredited school.
Mondragon says that the English-language schools in San Diego are a “small community. It’s competitive, but it’s not cutthroat competition.” The lone exception, again, seems to be the International Academy of English.
“They’re a new school,” explains Javier Arozarena, Converse’s owner and general director. “When we charge $600 to $700 for a four-week program, which is 80 hours a month, we are in the middle range. They charge $170 a month for the same amount of hours. You’ve got a lot of Japanese and Asian students who just go there for a month and come back and say,‘We left there because they don’t take attendance.’ If you don’t take attendance, that’s illegal. For a student who was planning to come here for three or four months, learn English, and go back to his country — and they find this 'deal’ where they think, ‘Hey, I can take it over here, in the U.S., in beautiful San Diego. I don’t have to attend class and I can just hang around with my student visa!’ This school — I’m not quite sure. They come from Las Vegas and opened a couple of years ago. I’ve talked to different directors at other language schools, and they all agree with me that we ought to write a letter to the INS, because it affects the reputation of all the schools in San Diego.”
Nationalities of students at Converse are more varied than at Language Studies International. Arozarena says the variety is no accident. “We work very hard to have a good mix of people. It’s a very important aspect of the English program, that you have a good combination in each class. You can’t have a lot of Japanese in one class or a lot of Swiss or a lot of Brazilians. We only segregate by level of English. Right now, the breakdown is about 20 percent Japanese, 25 percent Brazilian, 20 percent Swiss and German, and other countries make up the rest. We don’t have as many Asians as other language schools. You’ll see a lot more of them at San Diego State or UCSD. It might be as much as 50,60 percent Korean.”
Keeping a good mix of nationalities is more difficult in certain seasons, according to Mondragon. “It depends upon the time of year when there arc vacations in some countries. There are times when, try as we might, we end up with a class that is heavily one nationality. December, January, and February are the long vacations for South. America. We get a lot of Brazilians and Argentineans at this time. In the 1970s, there was a time when we were about 85 percent Saudi and Kuwaiti. A very interesting time, but that kind of evaporated.”
Since classes at Converse run from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., students have afternoons free. An activities coordinator at the school organizes two or three outings a week to immerse students in American culture. “Perhaps twice a month there are longer activities— San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas,” Mondragon says. “They make friends here and organize their own activities.”
Students are often surprised by America’s ethnic diversity. “In most of the countries that they come from—except Brazil, they’re a little different—everybody is basically the same ethnicity,” Mondragon says. “They come here and everybody’s different Here, everybody’s from somewhere else, or everybody’s grandparents are from somewhere else, and some students have a hard time realizing that and it can get them into trouble sometimes. They may say something that they shouldn’t have said. I think it takes them a while to get used to the fact that everyone here is different and don’t assume anything about anybody. It’s not a big problem, but it’s common to all the students. It’s always surprising to me how little they know about each other. Especially the European countries—there they are, all attached to each other, and they travel freely. But Europeans really know very little about each other. They have their stereotypes many times.”
“One of the nice things about the school is the interaction of people,” Arozarena says. “It’s not just to learn the language, but it’s to meet people from other countries. They make friends from different countries.” “I still remember two students who started out wanting to scratch each other’s faces off,” Mondragon says. “One was from Jordan and the other was from Israel, and they were here during the Yom Kippur War. They ended up as real good friends. It was one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen.”
Some nationalities have a harder time learning English. Mondragon says that it’s always the ones whose languages are most different in structure. “The Japanese and Vietnamese have a terrible time with pronunciation. Asian culture and Asian languages are very tied up with honorific” — addressing people according to their status — “and it’s very indirect, where English is not. Asians and Arab-speakers seem to have the most difficult time, which is one of the reasons we have such difficulty trying to balance out class groups. Beginning levels tend to fill up with Asian and Arab students, and they have a terrible time.”
Travel agents are the primary marketing tool for Converse, but Arozarena says that Converse also advertises in foreign magazines and on the Internet.“If you visit our website, you can find everything you need in eight different languages.” The Immigration and Naturalization Service does an initial check on students when they enroll. “They don’t check attendance, but they should,” Arozarena says.“I think since September 11, things are going to change. We’ve been told that the procedure is going to change. Instead of receiving an application and sending the I-20 to the agent or student.. .in the near future we are going to connect to the INS website, where they will give us a code for the student. So they will register the student’s name immediately before they issue the I-20. They will have more control. I wish they had more control.”
“It’s frustrating,” Mondragon says. “We will have a student whose attendance suddenly drops off and we can report it to the INS, and, in the past, nothing has happened.”
“And it’s not only the language schools,” Arozarena adds. “These flying schools also issued the I-20. We issue the I-20 for exactly the number of days and weeks that students are coming. Some language schools issue them for six months. And it’s very common for students to attempt to get a California driver’s license, but they’re not successful. They have to have a Social Security number to get a driver’s license. They want the driver’s license for many reasons. Number one, they want to drive here. Number two, in all the other countries, a driver’s license is extremely expensive. A driver’s license in Spain, for instance, might cost you $2000 or $3000. But now they need to have a Social Security number to get the license, and they have a hard time doing that.”
“If you’re here on a student visa,” Mondragon says, “you’re not permitted to work in this country. And truancy itself isn’t a big overall problem. We have isolated cases, certainly, but the great majority attend class. Most of our students pay for this themselves. They “tend to be working people in their own country. They’ve got an extended vacation, they’ve paid for this, and they are here and want to take advantage of it. We have more of a problem with people trying to drift in late than with people disappearing on us.
“If a person misses more than three classes, they cannot return to class until they come and see me. They’ve got to have a doctor’s note to excuse them. If not, we’ll usually give them another chance—we don’t want to cut their heads off immediately! I talk to them and, in some cases, Javier talks to them. There’s a danger of them not getting their certificate or losing their student visa, a whole variety of things, especially wasting their time here”
Tuition is paid in various ways. Credit card payments are frequently made through the Internet site. Students also pay the travel agent, who in turn pays the school. Some students bring their credit cards or cash to the school.
Mondragon’s involvement in language schools goes back nearly 30 years, to when she moved to San Diego from New York. “When I came out here, I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. I majored in Spanish and was trained to be a Spanish teacher. I went to Berlitz and was hired as an English teacher. At that time, it was a very bad place to work, not to take anything away from them now. Now it’s a different management, different company. But back then, it was bad — salary-wise and the whole thing. It was very small, a franchise then. I was not happy and I quit. Two weeks later, I went across the street to Converse, and I’ve been with them ever since.”
Arozarena came to San Diego from Mexico in 1985. “I came with my wife to do an internship in law. I studied English at Converse and was in the beginning levels. After doing my internship of six months, I was still studying English and had a g
“We used to teach other languages — Spanish, French — especially when the school was near Balboa Park. When the school moved downtown, we tried to continue Spanish for a few years, but we found that those students just didn’t want to come downtown. There’s no place to park. So we just concentrate on English and international students.”
David de Rosa, 24, came from Milan, Italy, to study at Converse. “I’ve been here for two months. I will be leaving soon — January 8. I look at six schools and try this one. I choose this school because it is better. I want to learn English because it is very important for to travel in the world. In Italy, the people don’t study a lot of English. The high school in Italy is different than in the U.S. When you go to school in Italy, you must do a general cultural study. Not just science or humanities. You look at everything: little bit English, little bit French, mathematics, language. I don’t speak English very well, and I come here to improve my English. I have a hotel in a tourist place in Italy, and I need English to speak with the British. I own the hotel with my family. We get many British from London and many Russian from Moscow. I know how to speak a little bit Russian. I spend four hours a day here. I rent an apartment in Pacific Beach, and I go to the beach to take sun in my free time. No swimming because the water is cold now, but I bicycle, play basketball, and spend one hour for to study in the afternoon. I take a bus. It is 20 minute from my house to here.”
De Rosa thinks English is a difficult language to learn. “I study French too, but it is more easier for me because it is like Italian grammar. English is an easy language, but for the Italian people, it is a little bit difficult. Our grammar is very complicated, but English language has little bit grammar, but it is not like Latin languages. For the German peoples, it is easier to learn English because it is more similar.
“It’s difficult with money too. Here, it is expensive life! For me to buy dollars is expensive. Next year, when they have Euro money, maybe in the future it can change something. I don’t think I will be coming back to U.S. when I finish here. I come here with my girlfriend. We come together and she lives with me in Pacific Beach. She speaks English very well because she’s been in Italian university studying English. She doesn’t need to come here to improve the language. I just finish high school in Italy. I don’t want to go to university for my job. I would go to university, for example, to work for big company”
Jaime Uribe, 21, has been in the United States for a year and a half. A native of Medellin, Colombia, he speaks English more clearly than most of the other students, but it could simply be my Californian ear for broken Hispanic English that makes him easier to understand. “When I get here, my English was poor. Now it is better and I’m happy because I’m here in the U.S. It’s a second language for me and the first language of the world. It’s important to know English. I will use this for business back home. I want to study international business. I will need to learn more language, but the first is English. I will go to Southwestern College. I plan to stay here for a long time. I want to go to San Diego State. I want to get a good degree. I have a student visa, but if I study here, they will renew it. My family sent me here, and they send me money every six months. I hope maybe to become a citizen. I am very happy here! My family don’t want to stay here. I’m here five hours a day, Monday through Friday. I live in Chula Vista in the Otay Ranch. I’m living with host family, but I’m going to move into apartment with some friend of mine. In spare time. I go to movies, watch TV, do my homework, nothing else. I have an American girlfriend. I met her someplace else where she works. She speaks Spanish, but all the time she speaks English with me. I tell her I want her to speak English with me. I kn6w her for three months.
“A hard thing is that grammar is difficult for me. I went to class often, and I’ve improved my grammar a lot. I’ve already passed the TOEFL and sometimes the pronunciation is difficult, but if you practice your English, you’ll get better pronunciation, I think. If I stay here for a long time, I improve my English a lot. The most difficult thing is money. My money in Colombia is low price. It’s expensive here. If you want to stay here, you have to try harder at everything and study and enjoy life all the time here.”
Marco Tolomio, a beginning student, comes from Sao Paulo, Brazil. At 38, he is older than most students. Although he has •a harder time speaking than anyone else I interview, he seems the happiest, sporting an irrepressible smile and frequently laughing. “Only my name is Italian — my grandfather came from Italy. This is my first time in United States and is very good. I never study English in Brazil. I study English at Converse school first time three months ago because of job in Brazil. I work for pharmaceutical company for about 15 years and quit July this year and come to San Diego. When I go back to Brazil, I look for job in the same work because I like this work. I need to speak English for a new job!” He laughs. “It’s very, very important in Brazil. Many, many companies need English speakers for jobs.”
For Tolomio, the biggest hardship of living in America is communicating. “Americans speak very fast, and for me, I need more time for listen and learn new words. But American people are very good and patient with me. I live with a host family, and my host family is very good. They show me different places in the United States: San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas.” The mention of Las Vegas brings a bigger smile to his face. “Oh, Las Vegas, very nice! Very good! I don’t do much gambling, but I look in many different casinos.”
One lure to return to Brazil is Tolomio’s girlfriend. “She’s teacher of special classes. People who are.. .retarded mental. Two, three days a week I call Brazil to talk to her. I go back to Brazil this weekend, but before I go, I stay in New York four days. Then in one year more I come to United States to study English some more.”
Claudia Ramirez, 24, came from Bogota, Colombia, to study at Converse. “I’ve been here for two months and I graduate in January, but I think of staying two months more. I can stay here for six months or one year if I want. It’s very important for me to know English because I am a journalist. I work for a weekly magazine called Semana. It’s the best. I wrote articles about my city about, how do you say?.. .culture.” Like Tolomio, Ramirez’s biggest difficulty in living here is the language. “I hope I learn more every day, but sometimes it’s very difficult. Sometimes you want to say something, but you can’t explain. Some things here are impolite that in my country are not impolite. You have to know about these things if you don’t want to be impolite. In San Diego, I don’t like the transportation. I feel so angry sometimes because when I was taking my bus, only crazy people are on it. In my country, transportation is not bad, only a little. I use the bus every day because I live in Clairemont. It’s about one hour. I do a lot of walking in my spare time or watching TV. There is not a lot of sightseeing for me. I live with host family and they are very nice to me. I have a boyfriend who lives in Jamaica. He speaks English only to me. He also speaks Spanish very well. He was living in my country for four years.”
I sneak into an advanced class at Converse as the teacher leads seven students in discussing a news article on civil unrest. The students, all in their 20s, focus on the front board, where the teacher constantly writes new words. They talk about the meaning of riot and the related terms that students offer, such as protests, Rodney King, to sue, police brutality, press charges, and criminal complaints. The teacher emphasizes the hard g in National Guard to correct a student’s mispronunciation and compares it to the soft g at the end of language. Students attempt to explain the subtle differences between amenities and luxuries; pressure and stress and anxiety; fluent and fluid.
Each student has a textbook called Focus on Grammar: An Advanced Course for Inference and Practice. The instructor says frequently: “But used in this context...” Every word is fair game for scrutiny. Discussing pressure, one student says that a homeless person feels pressure when police force him to move from where he is sleeping. Another says, “When you don’t have enough money to eat, that is pressure. When you are playing in a basketball game and you are one point losing and you have the basketball in your hand and if you make basket, you win, you feel pressure.” Another student says that pressure is “When you need to smoke and you have to wait.” The teacher validates each response. “In every situation, pressure is going to be different.” He calls on each student by name to ask about experiences of pressure. “What if I told you that during the second half of class today we were going to have a test on clauses? Do you feel pressure now?” The students laugh nervously and ask if he is joking—and he is. The teacher writes, “The man is cool under pressure” and discusses it with the students. Examining colloquialisms is a part of this class. Every student has a translation dictionary. One has a book called Oxford Word Power Dictionary for Learners of English. None of the students consult their dictionaries.
Intrigued by the derisive remarks I’ve heard about the International Academy of English, I call several other English-language schools for more opinions. No one else will speak on the record. Several say they have never heard of the school. An anonymous person at ELS Language Center says, “The problem is that they keep recruiting students away. I hear the program’s not very good. Some students that left here to go there came back because there was just not much of a program. They’re low-bailing everybody, and that’s all that I’ll say.”
Visiting the International Academy of English, I get the sense that things are different from the other schools I’ve visited. The central lobby is open and well lit by large windows that extend to the second-floor balcony. There are no administrative offices. The owner and director, Carmen Tepper, and her staff have desks in the lobby, creating a feeling of approachability.
Tepper, a native of Brazil, is a go-getter. She speaks with a force that suggests a strong competitive drive. “We have about 200 students right now. Usually we have enrollment every Monday — about 6 to 8 students. Yesterday [a Monday], we had almost 20 students enroll. We have nine teachers for morning classes, and we have one for an afternoon and one for a night class.
“Most of our students come from South America, particularly Brazil, and Japan. The average age is about 25. I’ve lived here for 15 years. I had a friend who owned a university, and it was her idea to open up a language school. For 20 years we had training for computers with Xerox and we taught computers; then we thought that instead of teaching computers, we should just teach language. We opened this school three years ago.” Tepper also has schools in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles.
Unlike the other language schools, the academy doesn’t rely on travel agents for business. “We have agents, but they are student agents. I spend a lot of money to have student agents at fairs. We also have ads in newspapers in Brazil and Japan. We are not accredited by ACCET yet, but we are in the process.
“We have about 15 to 20 students per class. We have eight levels of classes and different books at each level. We start with beginners, and we have three levels of intermediate, three levels of advanced, and then the TOEFL class.”
Contrary to the rumors, Tepper insists that the school does take roll and that the Immigration and Naturalization Service checks up on student visas. “Before September 11, the INS asked us to only report suspicious students. Now they ask us to report everybody who misses classes. We watch and the teacher watches. We double-check attendance. If they want to go surfing, they need to go change their visa to a tourist visa. If they have a student visa, they need to be in class.
“If a student misses classes, they have to reinstate. That means they have to go to immigration and explain why they are missing. Or they can go back to their country and come back, or they can go to Tijuana and come back. It is not difficult, and all these students know that.”
Tepper quotes the school’s rates. “One hundred ninety-five per month, plus a $75 application fee. That’s for the San Diego school. If you need a place to stay, the accommodation fee is $150 a week. If you are a student in San Diego, you can transfer to us. If you want to, you can apply to change your visa. Host families get different rates. You can have just breakfast, breakfast and dinner, shared bedrooms, private bedroom, whatever you want. Let’s I say you get breakfast and dinner and your own room, I we pay the host family $625 per month.”
This brings up the question of how the school can afford to charge so little, yet pay out so much to host families. “We can do this because we have a lot of students. About 15 percent go to host families; then when they get here, they make friends and get an apartment together.”
When it is mentioned that some of the other schools do not like the way she operates, Tepper gets even more animated. “Sure! That’s because we have a good price, we have good teachers, and we pay more on the average for teachers than they do. We have way lower price, and their students transfer to us, so sure they’re upset They say,‘How can you live with $195?’ We make a good profit. We are giving the teachers medical insurance. Why do they dislike us? Because they are making a heck of a profit. Not that we are making too little. We are making normal. We can pay everybody a nice salary compared to them, and we have very good teachers. Here they average $15 per hour, and we give them medical insurance and some paid holidays. There are schools that they pay $8, $10 per hour, and they charge a fortune for the students.
“They come here and they get really upset, because the first thing they expect from us is to have bad teachers, because they think we’re so cheap that we’d have to have bad teachers. So they come here and all the teachers are really good. And we give them a chance. I may get along with a certain teacher and you might not. Eighty-seven percent of the students really like their teachers, so we consider the others who have a problem with their teachers and allow them to change their classes. At the other schools, they don’t. You are stuck in that class, and it may not be your level. For instance, Brazilian students speak very well, but their grammar is very poor. Japanese students’ grammar is excellent, but their pronunciation isn’t very good So we allow them to change levels no matter what. First I give you a test and tell you what your level is. You go to that class, and if you think it is too strong or too low, you come to me and we make a change. Or maybe the level is fine, but you don’t like the teacher— we still allow you to change.
“This gets me very irritated, this reputation with other schools. They try to make it this way, because they are too expensive and their students turn to us. Why don’t they try to offer a better price rather than try to attack us this way? Talk to our students and see what they say!”
Looking around the school, I notice that some classes have 18 students— more than at Converse or at Language Studies International —but many classes have as few as 10 students. Each classroom has a framed sign next to the door with the name of the class, its level, and the name of the instructor. Topper is proud of the schools rapid growth and says that business has boomed since August. “We started out small and suddenly we are getting much bigger. It’s been word of mouth. After September 11, we thought,‘Oh my God!’ and all the other schools started to get lower enrollment. i thought we would too, but we grew! We know they lost enrollment, because their teachers were fired and they came here.”
Andres, 32, a student from Hungary, has been in the United States for eight months. “I’m kind of advanced level. I came here originally only for two months, but I can stay for five years. I want to speak fluent English, so I can stay here some more. I wanted to leant only for fun. i actually wanted to learn because my sister and my friends can speak English and I didn’t. It’s becoming more important in Hungary. I like this school. When I came here, I couldn’t speak English at all. so I think this school is pretty good. If you study hard, it is good for you. I used to live with a host family, but I have apartment with friends on El Cajon Boulevard in East San Diego. I have car now. I used to ride the bus, but it was strange. It took more than one hour to get here, and I saw some strange people on the bus.”
Wander Lambertucci, 30, came with his wife from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, ten months ago to study English. “I have to improve my English to work in Brazil. I am going to improve my r£sum£ so I can get a better job in Brazil and make more money and get better position. I think I’m going to stay here one year more. I’m a business administrator in Brazil. I manage finances for private companies. I’m thinking about getting a Cambridge or TOEFL certificate. I’m looking for an internship here in finance. I have been researching business and products here that I can maybe use in Brazil and open a small business there. I choose this school, because when I first come here, I choose a good school, but very expensive. It was ELS. A nice school, but I started to research and I found this school. It was a good price and I experimented here and I liked the teachers and the class. I like San Diego and I like America, but I see a lot of problems with families. A lot of divorces. I get worried about that. I think that they need to work hard to improve the family institution here.”
Mark Denise, 60, and his brother Terry, 59, have been hosting foreign students for 11 years. Mark is single and Terry is divorced and has 16 grandchildren. They share a house in Oak Park. Both men are outgoing, talkative, and friendly. “A lady from our church, Our Lady of Angels, got us interested in hosting students,” Terry says. “She had been doing it for years and she talked to us about it. We had a couple of spare rooms, so we decided to try it. We’ve been doing it ever since. The kids are so nice that we just enjoy having people like that around.
“A lot of times if the school has a problem placing a student somewhere, they call us. Usually in the summer they’ll have big loads of students from Spain and France. We don’t have a mom in the house, so we prefer that the students be over 21.”
Terry says that the host-family experience is contagious. “Since we’ve been doing it, we got another neighbor across the street, Debbie, and another one, Barbara, involved in it Sometimes we’ll all take turns cooking. We’ll cook Monday and she’ll cook Tuesday and the other one will cook Wednesday. It’s a great community.”
It’s 8:00 p.m., and the Denise brothers have the house to themselves for a while. There are currently two students living with them, a Swiss man and a Japanese woman. “They’re out partying right now,” says Mark. “Sometimes we have as many as 5 students. One Christmas we had 6. This summer we had 15. We had to open up the camper. Sometimes it’s old students who have come back to visit and they just show up. We’ve had their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles. But we can take 3 students comfortably.”
Mark and Terry are hospitable men who treat their students like family, but they don’t do it for free. “We take students exclusively from the Converse school,” Mark says. “They pay us $575 per student each month. We have nothing to do with the students, as far as financial; the school pays it directly to us. We also do their laundry — something that’s not required.”
“Saturday is wash day,” Terry says. “We do everything at one time. We wash the students’ clothes, and most families won’t do that. We tell them to put their clothes in the basket. We wash it, fold it, and put it back on their beds, but we don’t iron. If they want that, we show them where the ironing board is.”
“Otherwise they’d be washing clothes every day of the week or at nighttime,” Mark adds. “To conserve energy and water, we do it all at once. Some of the girls want to wash their own private things, and that’s fine. We let them do that.”
How difficult can it be to have a stranger in your house who cannot yet speak the most rudimentary English? Terry says it’s never been a problem.“We speak very slowly, and a lot of times actions speak louder than words anyway.”
“Most students can speak some English,” says Mark. “We work with them and show them where everything is. This is where the glasses are. Here are the plates. They work it out. They have the books. I remember a Korean boy who always used his dictionary. It would be slow talking with him, but we did it. After a week or two, they’re doing okay.”
Romance can sometimes be a problem. Although they’ve never had two students who lived with them get involved, students have brought home new love interests. Mark and Terry don’t mind, as long as the house rules are followed. “When they arrive,” Terry explains, “there’s a thing on their desk that says, ‘Welcome to the house of the two brothers.’ Then it tells them when dinner is and what breakfast times are. They are told that no guests are allowed to stay overnight A lot of them will meet friends at the school and get involved, but if they want to do anything, they can go downtown and get a hotel. They can come over for dinner, but after 10:00, they have to leave.”
“There was a boy from France,” Mark says, “who when he arrived and got off the plane, our mouths just dropped. He had a shaved head and was dressed all in black. He looked like one of these ‘heil Hitler’ types. He was kind of strange. When we got home, he asked us if we knew of any KKK meetings he could attend.” “Our mouths just dropped,” says Terry. “We said, ‘What?’ He was in America three years before, in the South, and he said, ‘The host family I stayed with took me to KKK meetings every week, and I enjoyed them.’ I said,‘Listen, don’t even mention that in our neighborhood! If that’s what you want, you’ll need a new host family.’ He claimed that he lived under the Eiffel Tower in the park in Paris. We asked about his parents, and he said he lived on his own. Anyhow, he decided that he wanted to stay with us anyway.”
“We first tried to get him out of the dark clothes. I mean, black clothes are okay, but it was just the way he wore them. He was very standoffish. He didn’t get any affection in his life. We’d give him a hug once in a while, which we do with all our students. Eventually, he began wearing white T-shirts and started hugging everyone.”
“One day,” Mark says, “I came home early and walked in the back gate. I saw a trail of clothes from the Jacuzzi going into the house.” “Mark walked into the living room, and there he was on the sofa with this girl, just going at it.”
“The girl ran into the bedroom crying,” Mark continues. “I asked him what the hell he was doing. I said, ‘You know the house rules.’ He said,‘Oh yeah. But you weren’t home and I thought maybe I could.’ By this time, the girl came out, and she was very upset and apologetic — a very sweet kid. She was from Spain, and she got on her knees and begged me not to tell her father. I said,‘I have to report this to the school’ She begged me not to, so I let them sweat a little.”
“Mark didn’t tell me,” Terry says,“but they thought he was going to tell me. He finally told me about three days later. Actually, we got to know her and they were both nice kids. She would come to visit at dinner, and they didn’t try that anymore. He came back to see us two years later and brought his mother.” Students have minimal chores. “They’re required to keep their rooms up and keep the bathroom clean,” Mark says. “And they have to help out washing dishes after dinner. We want them to get involved in a family style of life. We don’t push them, but if they want to do it, fine. We ask them if they’re willing to help. We are like family. Some of them will stay for as long as nine months. Most of them are pretty good about it. We still pick up a little in the bathroom.”
One student who crossed the brothers’ doorstep, however, seemed impossible to get along with. “We had one young man from Germany who was difficult,” Mark says. “I called the lady at the school and said maybe it would be better to move him to another family. We talked with him and tried to work with him, and he didn’t want to go to another family. But that’s the only one in 11 years. Most of the time, when the school has a problem with a host family, they’ll send them to us.”
“This German student wasn’t pleasant,” says Terry.
“His personality wasn’t friendly. He was tough and questioned everything. If we were eating dinner and served something he wanted, he would pick up the plate and take it all for himself. We’d say, ‘How about the rest of the students?’ and he’d say,‘I don’t want to pass it around.’We told him that he should think about the others. He’d just say, ‘Why?’ One week he handed us back his laundry and complained,‘These are still dirty — wash them.’ ”
“I bit my tongue and just said,‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ ” says Mark.“We did it again and he still didn’t like it. So we told him to take them to a laundromat. He got really belligerent. We finally found out that he had a maid at home. He was spoiled. He came from a very well-to-do family and had maids to do everything. We found out later that even his family couldn’t handle him and that’s why he was here. He just had a hard time dealing with authority and being told what to do.”
“We had another young man here at the time who was very good-looking and very popular,” Terry says. “He was asked to a lot of parties and Andy, the German boy, would want to go with him. He would always say, ‘I’ve got to get dressed and go quickly so that Andy doesn’t come along. All my friends are saying, “Don’t bring him with you.”
“We let them know what’s expected of them right away,” Terry says. “It’s ‘Here’s what we require of you. You’re free to come and go as you please, and here’s your key.’ We don’t want to come across like prison wardens. A lot of host families are really stem. We hear about this because students invite other friends from the school over for dinner. You’ll hear,‘Oh, my host family has given me TV dinners all week.’ We tell them that they need to tell the school if they’ve got a problem. We had one student come stay with us at Christmas because her host family informed her that they had plans to leave for the holidays and she was left behind. We couldn’t believe it.”
Surprisingly, food tends to be the most common problem for visiting students. “Our food is just different for them,” Terry says. “But we try to cook a lot of rice, if they eat a lot of rice, or fish, if that’s what they’re used to. We try to cook normally, but we adapt to what they like.”
The majority of the brothers’ students seem to come from Switzerland and Japan, although last year they had many students from Brazil. “I think the Japanese and Swiss come here because their currency is so strong against the dollar that it’s cheap for them to come here,” Terry says.
“We had one student who came from Japan who was always cold,” Mark recalls. “I remember we had five blankets on his bed and he told us he was still cold. We couldn’t figure it out until we finally went into the bedroom one morning and he was lying on top of ail the blankets. He never knew to open it up! He said,‘Ah, like a sandwich.’ We said, yes, get inside and cover. Then he was fine.”
Built in 1950, their house has been expanded from its original three bedrooms and one bath to five bedrooms and four baths. Terry, a painter, collects art, and the house is as eclectically decorated as one could possibly imagine. The central family room, next to the kitchen, has two huge oils on its walls, several Egyptian mummy cases, and a life-size statue of a Roman centurion. In a cabinet crammed to capacity are mementos and gifts from the hundreds of students who have stayed with the brothers: a Wizard of Oz nutcracker, souvenir plates, miniature dolls, glassware, action figures from Jack In The Box, crucifixes, mugs, beer steins, Chinese teacups, several Swiss Army knives. Each item has a story.
Mark pulls out a common-looking drinking glass covered with a plain pattern of red, white, and blue squares. “We had a ’50s and ’60s party with about 40 students here — it was one of their birthdays. They were dressed in bell bottoms and Afros. And this student from Saudi Arabia was here, and he was really the son of a sheik. He wanted to get something from the ’50s, and he went to an antique store and bought that glass for S150! He walked in the store dressed like a sheik for the party, and they saw him and figured he was an easy target. He gave it to us and said,‘You can have it. I don’t need it.’ ”
“Some of the students really like American television,” Terry says. “They watch The Simpsons, and I have to tell them that that’s not really what everyone is like. That and Jerry Springer. They love Jerry Springer. They say,‘We don’t have that in our country!’ ” Though Mark and Terry are paid, the cost of accommodating each student leaves little room for profit. But it’s apparent that they would do this for nothing if they could afford to. “We really enjoy the students,” Mark says. “We give something to them, but they give a lot to us. We went on a trip to Europe last year, and the entire trip, we stayed with students who had stayed with us.”
“We went to Spain, Paris, Berlin, the Czech Republic, and London,” Terry adds. “Most of the students that come here come from really nice families. Everywhere we went in Europe they treated us royal. They wine you and dine you and take you everywhere and show you all the sights. We saw a lot of things most tourists never get to see.”
“You have to enjoy people. You have to give up a lot of your space and privacy when you have students. In this particular house, it’s not a problem. They almost have a social room that’s theirs. We can come back here and have time to ourselves if we want, and we don’t have to be in each other’s faces.”
The attack of September 11 slowed things down for Mark and Terry, but it didn’t last long.
“Most of the students felt very bad for us,” Terry says. “We got a lot of e-mails and people calling to tell us they were really sorry. They wanted to know if it affected us or if we were having problems here.”
“The students stopped coming for a little bit, and we had some downtime for a couple of weeks, when people just weren’t traveling.”
“They don’t seem to worry about it as much as we do. It picked back up.”