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Lingo Shock : Older immigrants find our language and culture a challenge.

July 04, 1991|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Olga Tarnova smoothed her cobalt hair and read her composition.

"Alexahnder Ivanovich told us not worry. So we try to altogather forgat."

"To forgat altogadder!" Hyman Kaplan sang out, polite but decisive. . . .

Miss Tarnova stamped her foot. "How I said? What is matter?"

"Tsplit infinitif!" exclaimed Mr. Kaplan triumphantly.

Mr. Kaplan had, by supreme concentration, memorized three axioms anent English grammar, and he clung to them like cosmic verities: "Wrong tanse!" "Double nagetif!" and "Tsplit infinitif!"

--From "The Return of Hyman Kaplan" by Leo Rosten

Best-selling author Leo Rosten's stories of the beginning English class of the American Night Preparatory School for Adults in New York, originally published in the New Yorker, are set in the 1930s. But today in Ventura County, immigrants still struggle to master the language, which they call the most difficult challenge they face in their new homeland. Last week some older immigrants around the county shared their experiences encountering a new language and culture.

Saul Hernandez Cruz, 60, attends Ventura College Amnesty English night classes at Fillmore High School. During a conversation there, Hernandez Cruz said he began annual visits to the United States in 1955 as a bracero, or contract agricultural worker, in Texas and California.

He has been a permanent resident for 15 years but does not speak English. Hernandez Cruz, a grandfather of four, lives in Fillmore with six of nine children and works in a packinghouse. His education in Mexico extended only as far as the sixth grade.

For the last two years he has been taking classes. "English is indispensable," he said in Spanish. "When I worked in the fields, I tried to learn English from television, but comprehension is very difficult."

He wants to master English to improve his job opportunities and gain confidence.

Nshan Nshanyan, 64, came from Armenia 11 years ago. During a break from classes at the Simi Valley Adult School and Career Institute, he described his frustration at being laid off from a job in electronics two months ago. Despite an associate of arts degree and training as an electrician, Nshanyan said, poor English has impeded his effort to find another job.

He lives with his married brother's family and attends English, reading and computer classes eight hours a day, Monday through Friday.

Recalling his first day in America, Nshanyan said in English: "I couldn't drive, so I walk five miles seeing houses and neighbors' faces in houses. Very pretty, very nice. In my old country, all houses the same."

While some students talked about the need to adjust to a new environment, others marveled at a society that they perceive as bountiful and replete with democratic freedoms.

Nshanyan's fellow student, Cuban-born Maria Busquets, 68, recalled her first days in America.

"I love sweets, and the first day I gobbled caramelos because I was afraid they would run out or be taken away. In Cuba there were quotas and there was never enough food."

Busquets said she and her husband were forced to work in the fields before they escaped to Spain and finally reached America in 1970. Her son Joaquin earned a master's degree here. Her other son, Rigoberto, stayed behind in Cuba and is expected to arrive here soon.

Busquets said there was a time when she didn't feel confident that she could learn English. But now, "I need to modernize and to communicate with my neighbors. At my age, I want to express myself."

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