LONG BEACH — The subject for the day was dating and courtship.
Ramon Arteaga, a waiter from Mexico, sat across from Juachan Jandharawatana, a woman from Thailand. Both sipped imaginary cups of coffee.
"You want to go to the dance with me?" asked Arteaga, flashing his most winning Latin smile.
"I don't dance," said Jandharawatana, demurely averting her eyes.
"OK," Arteaga said, "we can just go to the dance and not dance. You want me to call you tonight?"
"I don't think so," the woman said with an air of finality.
The young man lingered uncomfortably before excusing himself and returning to his seat in the classroom. The two had just shared an exercise in English idioms as well as an exploration of cultural differences.
These differences form part of a course called Intercultural Communication. It is part of a new sequence of courses at Long Beach City College's English as a Second Language department that, according to some educators, is unusual.
"This is absolutely necessary to make it in the workplace," Mary Jean Kolasa said of the cross-cultural understanding and language acumen that the course strives to induce in immigrant students through role playing and other unorthodox techniques. "(The immigrants) are here to stay; they're not going away."
An ESL teacher, Kolasa created the courses last year after a survey of intermediate-level ESL students on the campus indicated a desire on their part for more classes emphasizing English fluency rather than grammar or theory.
The new course series, she said, has two major goals: to improve English usage through the study and practice of idioms specific to certain common situations, and to increase the students' ability to function comfortably in a multiethnic society by exploring the cultural differences that often hamper communication.
Some of those differences, Kolasa said, are obvious to anyone willing to watch. Women from Asian countries, for instance, traditionally speak in low voices, avert their eyes when speaking to a man, refuse to touch or even shake hands with a man to whom they are not married and expect to stand at least four feet away from people with whom they converse. That can be especially problematic, Kolasa said, when they are dealing with Latino men who tend to be more outgoing, less physically restrained and comfortable with distances of two feet or less. People brought up in the United States, she said, are somewhere in the middle on the space issue, preferring interpersonal distances of about 36 inches.
Students in the program explore their cultural differences by setting up imaginary role-playing situations, engaging in discussions of their national customs and, in some cases, sharing mementos of their pasts.
Besides the Intercultural Communications course, which explores such issues as proper dating etiquette and the meaning of gestures, the program offers five other courses covering such topics as social interaction, occupational language skills, idiomatic language and useful expressions.
Students taking the courses, Kolasa said, get regular college credit culminating in a certificate of completion from the college. About 240 students are enrolled in the sequence: 70% of them from Spanish-speaking countries. Most of the rest are Asian.
Educators at other institutions say that, while many ESL classes touch on these issues, most are not specifically dedicated to them.
"I think it is unique and I think it is addressing needs that are very important," Karen Fox, director of the American Language Institute at Cal State Long Beach, said of the LBCC program. "They're hitting the nail on the head as far as making people employable and making them fit in. We assume that people who have fairly correct grammar are automatically OK, but that's a lot of garbage. They need to be instructed specifically in how to respond in a culturally appropriate way."
During a recent class session, the students seemed to be enjoying the instruction.
"I'm hitting the ceiling!" said one Latina student, playing the wife of a man returning home late with the smell of alcohol on his breath in a skit designed to teach idioms.
"Don't jump the gun," replied her pretend husband, speaking slowly with a Chinese accent.
Afterward, Alex Lu, an immigrant from Taiwan who owns a Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, explained why he liked the course.
"It's not just the teacher speaking and the students listening," he said. "In this class we have a chance to do something."