Learning a new language is challenging, and most English language learners are shy about conversing with new acquaintances, but Santos Argueta, a veteran participant of Project SPELL, struck me as different. With a dimpled smile on his cheerful face, he confidently shook my hand and asked me about my day.
“I’ve been in Project SPELL for two and a half years now,” said Santos, who is originally from El Salvador, when I complimented his conversational skills.
His tutor, Andrea Gonzales, is only in her second quarter as a SPELL tutor, but this fourth-year Business Economics major has already had some humbling experiences during her tutoring sessions.
“It’s always nice to give back to our community, but Project SPELL has really helped me grow as an individual, too. I learned to be more flexible with situations — adapting myself to how my learner learns,” she reflected.
Santos grew up speaking Spanish with his grandmother in the small town of San Miguel in El Salvador. He first came to the United States in 1994 with no knowledge of the English language.
“I did not speak any English when I first got here. I worked as a food truck cleaner and all the workers spoke Spanish, so I never needed to learn English. If I really needed to speak to someone who didn’t understand Spanish, I found a ‘translator’,” Santos recalled while laughing. It wasn’t until he started working at Los Angeles International Airport a few years later that he realized he needed conversational skills to communicate with coworkers and supervisors. He enrolled in private English classes and gained basic interpersonal skills in English, but was still apprehensive when he signed up for Project SPELL in 2014.
“I remember so clearly my first introduction to Santos,” says Program Director Stephanie Youngblood. “You could see in his nerves just how much this meant to him. The fact that he overcame that fear to take a risk and enroll speaks a great deal to his character and drive.”
Now, almost 3 years later, he uses English on a daily basis in his role as a custodian at the UCLA Center for Health Sciences.
“The lab managers ask me to unlock or clean their laboratories. My boss usually gives me instructions, but there are times when I have to give reports. Sometimes, people ask me for directions. I won’t understand any of these if I don’t speak English,” said Santos about his daily interactions in English.
Santos has also gained confidence in using English to run errands and manage household responsibilities.
“I can fully understand my bills and make immigration appointments in English. When I call customer care hotlines, I choose English to practice. I feel proud when they understand me,” said Santos.
Even though Santos has gotten accustomed to conversing in English, he still struggles to understand fast, casual speech, and works closely with his tutor to practice listening skills.
Andrea is able to relate to the challenges Santos faces, as she herself moved from the Philippines to the United States at age 13. “I was taught how to read and speak in English from a young age. Although understanding English was not too difficult, I still struggled with speaking it when I first came here. Like Santos said, sometimes people here spoke too fast for me, and sometimes I just didn’t know how to express my opinions in English.”
Despite having worked together for only one and a half quarters, it is apparent that Santos and Andrea have formed a close bond through their commonalities. Just as I was immediately at ease with Santos’ cheerfulness, Andrea loves his positivity and energy.
“It is refreshing,” she said. “Santos always makes me laugh and smile.”
Santos is very appreciative of Andrea’s efforts to create fun and engaging lessons. One particular lesson involving the analysis of pop songs was undoubtedly the best session for both of them.
“My favorite activity so far was when we analyzed Sia’s ‘Chandelier.’ I had him fill in the blanks while listening to the song. Afterwards, we discussed what he thought the song was about and read an article on how other people interpreted the song,” explained Andrea, as Santos nodded along to her words. “He loves the part that goes ‘I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist’.”
Andrea appreciates how aware Santos is of current events and culture.
“I like how we can talk about song lyrics in one session and politics in the next one. Since he likes reading the news, we read an article about the Women’s March last month and did some comprehension exercises after that.”
On top of the support Andrea provides twice a week, Santos currently attends English classes at an adult school through LAUSD on weekday mornings. Santos works very hard to master English, and he advises his coworkers to do the same.
“I tell my friends who are in Project SPELL, don’t quit even if it’s getting hard, because I have been in it for two years, and I see the benefit. I am more confident with speaking in English now,” said Santos, beaming with pride at his accomplishments. Santos’s next big accomplishment is coming in a few months, when he will provide reflections on his learning at Project SPELL’s June graduation.