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Just take that call: How I learned English

A Brazilian immigrant turned book author shares her experience and advice on achieving English proficiency and succeeding in the United States.

By Paola Fattorini / Migrante21

Paula Massadas at her book presentation on August 22, 2015, at the Green Salon in Downey, California.

Paula Massadas at her book presentation on August 22, 2015, at the Green Salon in Downey, California.

Paula Massadas came to the United States from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2000, when she was 19. Before her arrival, she had taken English classes, so she thought the language was not going to be a great challenge for her. However, as soon as she got off the plane and started talking to people, she realized they could not understand her. “What is wrong?!” she wondered. Of course, she had considered that there were going to be other challenges, such as finding a good school, or finding a job, but suddenly, she started to feel frustrated. In order to communicate in English, she needed to dedicate a lot more time and energy than she had expected.

15 years have passed, and now Paula is not only proficient in English, but she also studied psychology and has a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. She is now a faculty librarian, which she considers the job of her dreams. Paula’s advice to immigrants studying English is not to be discouraged and to keep on until they become proficient.

Last Saturday, August 22, at the Green Salon in Downey, California, Paula officially presented her first book, How I Learned English, a story that describes the challenges a young Mexican faces when she immigrates to the U.S. Migrante21 spoke with Paula about her own story, her experience while she was an ESL (English as a Second Language) student herself, and what inspired her to write her book.

-What inspired you?
-For the last several years, while working as a librarian, I had the opportunity to share my immigrant story with ESL learners, and read them the story of Claudia Sánchez, the main character of “How I Learned English” to them. The enthusiasm they shown about the story and how they felt related to the main character motivated me to publish the book!

-What is so special about this book in regards to other ESL books?
-How I Learned English is the book that I wished I had read when I was an ESL student. It is pedagogical in its intent to excite students about what their teachers are about to teach them and specifically to motivate students who are at the stage where they need an extra push to develop good study skills and pass to the next level in order to become proficient.

Claudia, the main character of Massadas’s book, is afraid to answer the phone because of her poor English.

Claudia, the main character of Massadas’s book, is afraid to answer the phone because of her poor English.

-Why is the main character Mexican, not Brazilian?
-The idea and stereotype about Brazilians is that we are all about party, dance, Rio Carnival and everything is OK, we’re very festive. I chose a Mexican woman as main character, because in California, Mexicans are the majority of the immigrant population; and a woman, maybe because I’m a woman myself, and feel closer to their emotions. In my experience, what I saw during my years as student was that the majority of ESL students were women. And when I was working at the library, women were the only group that came in to ask for advice, such as how long did it take me to become proficient, how long does it take to get your bachelor’s, your master’s, etc.

-What were the main challenges you found yourself as an immigrant while you were studying English?
At the beginning the sense that everything was unfamiliar, that I wasn’t able to connect so much with other people. But I think pronunciation was the main reason, and it is the biggest challenge.

-What did you learn when you were an ESL student yourself?
-That there comes a moment that you could keep coming to class, learning the grammar, the verb tenses, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to communicate effectively, and if you don’t go out there and practice everything and interact, you won’t make it.

But along the learning process, being surrounded by immigrants made me grow as a person. In Brazil everybody sort of has the same mentality, dresses in a certain way, eats the same food, that’s how I was raised, you’re supposed to act in a certain way. When I moved here, I was surrounded by so many different people, it is amazing! You want to ask them a lot, to learn about their food, religion, traditions, politics, you become more aware and involved with other cultures in general, it was something that really enriched my life – being in a classroom with people from all over the world that were going through the same issues as I did, it would just make my day! I also became more educated with that experience, and I’m very thankful every day that I’m here in this country!

-What would your advice to ESL teachers be?
-I’m the one who buys ESL books for the library, so I know there are a lot of good books, but you know what the problem is? The books don’t talk about the issues that immigrant students are going through. I wish my teachers had approached topics and conversations that spoke more about our realities the way the story of  Claudia Sánchez does: how she feels about leaving her family and friends, the hugeness of the city she lived in, not knowing anyone, looking for a job, how hard are the first months of adjustment after the cultural shock, finding their first job, making friends from other countries and cultures.

-What would your advice be for ESL students?
-I know how they work hard and make a great effort, because most of them have kids, responsibilities; most of the time they have low paying jobs because they cannot speak English really well, so I recommend they have a plan for their lives: where would I like to be six months, one year, two years from now? Because in the end, if you don’t learn English, you are going to be more limited to the kind of job that you can get. I always say, if you just take your classes, and go back home, and don’t interact with people, [you are not going to learn.] You need to fully embrace the culture, practice, practice, and practice!


This interview is part of our Back to School series.

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