For Chatham immigrants, learning English takes time, commitment and courage


When Honduran immigrant José Héctor López Barrera arrived in Siler City in 2006, his top priority wasn’t learning English.

It was finding work.

“(We left) searching for a better life for our family and personally because in our countries, it's hard,” López Barrera, 38, told the News + Record in Spanish. “The economic situation is very difficult. You can't find jobs." 

To thrive in Chatham, he knew he needed to learn English. First, however, he needed to survive — and making a living didn’t leave him a lot of time or energy to pursue other goals, much less learning a new language.  

He’s not alone. For many Chatham immigrants, finding English instruction, free or not, is only half the battle. Attaining fluency in a second language, especially for adults, requires heaps of commitment, courage and above all time — a luxury few newly arrived immigrants have to spare.

"When we arrived in this country we came with the illusion of working, of being able to earn money and help our families,” he said. “That is why sometimes we do not focus on learning English because of the time, because we come here, we do not have someone to help us pay our rent and bills. There is no one to help us, so we have to work hard. … And that's why the time to learn English, there isn't any. "

Time is crucial when it comes to learning another language, Central Carolina Community College’s lead ESL instructor, Julia Herbón, told the News + Record. CCCC offers free ESL classes in Siler City, Pittsboro and online in the mornings and evenings.

“It's not something that you can do from one year to the other, so if you want to see results right away, you won’t,” she said. “Another thing is that it takes a lot of commitment to learn a language, so are you going to commit to twice a week, three times? I mean, we were having classes before the pandemic every day, for four hours, and people cannot follow that schedule.”

And how long does it usually take to master a second language? It depends on the person, the effort he or she puts in and his or her set of circumstances, Herbón said. 

“I can't tell you,” she said. “What I always tell them is like in three months, you're going to see results. In six, you will. In one year, you won't believe how much you were able to achieve. It's going to be different for all of them because they all improve but at a different pace.”

But time isn’t the only factor to take into account. Timing matters, too.

“Many of our students finish working, and they come to class,” she said, “and they are exhausted, but they just want to make a change.”

Age matters, too. Younger learners, like children, are like “sponges,” Herbón said, and can learn another language quickly. Adults, however, are different.

“If you try to learn a language at the age of 20, well, that's perhaps easier, but if you learn it at the age of 30 and 40, it's hard,” she said. “And when we are adults, you know, it's difficult to get corrections. We don't want to make mistakes. We want everything to be perfect.”

It’s something she knows well: She began learning English when she was 8 years old in Argentina and decades later, now an ESL veteran, sometimes she said people might not understand her when she’s speaking.

“I don't have native-like fluency. I don't. I have an accent, I still have an accent,” she said, adding, “ … At the age of 30 (to) 50, you will have an accent, and of course, you will be pretty accurate with the way you express your ideas and the way you write your ideas, but it's not going to be perfect.”

‘I am scared’

Like many adult immigrants, Mexican immigrant Elena González too struggled to find the time to learn English. 

A long-time Siler City resident, González worked as a nutrition assistant at Siler City Elementary School — and she dedicated nearly all of her spare time to volunteering with various community organizations, including the Hispanic Liaison, where she now works.

“Volunteering should be the law,” joked González, 62.

When she could, she’d attend classes at CCCC off and on in different years. At one point, she even enrolled in CCCC’s Natural Chef culinary program and found herself nearly overwhelmed by just how much she had to translate from Spanish to English and vice versa.

But her biggest obstacle to learning English wasn’t little free time; it was fear. She and her husband, Juan Carlos, moved to Siler City in 1999, and even a few years after settling in Chatham, she never wanted to leave the house.

“In my mind, all the time, I say (to) myself, ‘English is not for you. English is not for you. English is not for you,’” González said. “And when my neighbor is coming by my house, ‘Quiet!’ because I am scared. I cannot say hello. I cannot say good morning. This is very difficult for me.”

For years, she hesitated to speak English in public. In her classes, she’d prefer to stay quiet, lest others mock her for any mistakes she might make. But little by little, she mustered up the courage to put herself out there and practice. 

Finally, in May, González began receiving one-on-one instruction with a Chatham Literacy tutor, Patty Poe. Because her director allows her to take the time off, she meets Poe nearly every Wednesday for a couple of hours to continue improving her English skills.

“I need (to) continue to learn day by day,” she said. “ … I am not quiet.”

A different kind of fear might hold others back, too. Undocumented immigrants may choose not to attend English classes for fear of being detained.

“They don't want to be arrested,” Herbón said. “They don't want to be deported, and so they are really scared about that, and that's why they are pretty much ostracized. In their homes, they are scared.”

Others just don’t believe learning English is in their realm of possibilities.

“There's low self-esteem, so they think that they won't be able to do it,” Herbón said. “They won't be able to learn. It's just, ‘I'm old. This is not for me.’” 

We have to try to learn English'

Learning English is a long, involved process requiring time, commitment and courage. So, what propels adult immigrants to learn? 

A compelling reason, plus a whole lot of determination. 

“The people who have never been our students are the ones who perhaps are not interested in learning the language because they have a support system in their community,” Herbón said, “and they don't want to make that effort. It's not necessary for them. They have a store where they speak in their first language. Even with their family, most of them are bilingual, so they haven't had the need.” 

González found her motivation in her decision to stay — permanently — in the U.S. to work and fight for the immigrant community, or as she put it, "luchando por la causa."

“This is my life here. I have 30 years here — yes, all my life,” she said. “For this reason, I am staying here. I need to speak English. Entonces (so), all the time I am not feeling I am a part of here. No, all the time, I think I will return to my country. I don’t need to speak English. … Yes, I need to stay here. I have the opportunity. I have this job.”

López Barrera found his motivation in a long-time dream — starting his own business. In 2019, while working for Mountaire Farms, he signed up for evening classes with CCCC and attended for eight months until the pandemic struck.

"I find it very hard, ” he said. “It is very difficult because in my country I went up to the 4th grade. I did not go to school. I don't have much education, but here I am."

He learned a lot during his time in class — how to greet people, question whether they need something and ask for help. Once his Mountaire supervisors saw he’d learned to speak some English, they promoted him to mechanic, but eventually he left Mountaire in February to start a remodeling business called Premium Remodeling Services Inc. 

About four months into the job, it’s a bit tough, he said, but steadily he’s finding work — and the little bit of English he learned has helped him quite a bit to get the ball rolling.

"I knew zero English. I didn't know anything," he said. “Now I know a little more. … There's really a lot that I don't understand, but at least I can already have a little conversation with a client that needs to have his bathroom remodeled, his kitchen remodeled, that he needs to put in a floor. All that I understand and I understand when they tell me that."

Once things calm down and he has more time, López Barrera plans to resume his English lessons and learn even more. And for his fellow Spanish speakers, he has one key piece of advice: Do whatever you can to learn English if you plan to stay in the United States.

“If you don't even try, you won't achieve anything,” he said. “We have to try to learn English and we have to practice it, not be ashamed, not be afraid to speak out, because if we don't we will never move forward."

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at


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