Language Lessons, Vegas Style

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They come from all over — China, Russia, Mexico, Ethiopia, even France — looking for opportunity and for better lives for their children. These are not the tired, hungry and poor yearning simply to be free, and it's not just America they've come to. These are the huddled masses yearning to learn English, and they've come to Vegas to do it.

While battles continue to rage in states like Oregon, Texas, Colorado, Illinois and New York, where some language education "experts" still cling to an outmoded construction known as bilingual education, Las Vegas hotel-casinos teach English (search) the way new Americans have been learning it for generations: immersion, sink or swim.

Las Vegas has been quietly succeeding where public schools subscribing to the bilingual model have failed — and it has done so simply by not tampering with an individual's natural predisposition to grasp a new language faster when it is the only tool available. So while school children in bilingual ed (search) — whose adaptive young brains are poised to assimilate language within months — are unable to read, write or form a clear thought in English, 40- and 60-year-old immigrants laboring as cooks, guest room attendants and bellhops at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino (search) must communicate with co-workers and customers the only way that they can be understood — in English.

Like the transitional bilingual ed programs at public schools, where kids are taught all subjects in their native tongue and ESL (search) is just a one-hour period like any other, MGM/Mirage's Bellagio also offers ESL courses to employees. But here is the key to the casino's success, which somewhere along the line got lost on the politically correct forces behind the bilingual industry: The job skills themselves are taught in English — and not in Spanish, Chinese, Ethiopian, French, Russian and everything in between.

While some casinos, like Mandalay Bay, refer new hires to off-site ESL programs at community colleges, Bellagio offers on-site English training to the willing. And there are a lot of takers, according to Bellagio general training coordinator Lorena Cazares.

"We encourage our employees to attend classes, even if it's only one day a week," Cazares said in reference to the spring and fall courses that run 15 weeks, Monday through Thursday, from 5:00 to 6:15 in the afternoon. An additional six-week session is offered in the summer. The free classes, with pencils, erasers, workbooks and certified instructors from community colleges provided for the employee-students by the casino, are taken on the employees' own time, conveniently either on their way in to work or on their way out, depending on whether they work the day or the evening shift.

The employees' English levels range from "pre-literacy to advanced, from not being able to speak one word of English to having some kind of working knowledge of it," said Cazares. An assessment test on a student's first day determines where he or she falls within that range and what needs to be worked on the most, whether it's pronunciation, writing or reading. Explained Cazares, "Some can be fluent but unable to write. ... The more advanced ones help the others build up their skills."

The program at Bellagio began in 1999, and Mirage has had one in place since 1993. The company also owns Treasure Island, MGM, New York New York and Golden Nugget — all of which have on-site ESL training except for the Golden Nugget, which sends employees to Bellagio for classes. At the end of the 15-week course, employees get a certificate acknowledging completion of the program. But even after graduating from the program, many come back on their own for a refresher, especially since often there is no chance to practice at home, where only the first language is spoken.

"They feel obligated to learn the language, and want to be positive role models for their children," Cazares said. "They're like, 'I'm old, but here I am,' and they show that education is very important. I truly admire them for doing that."

There is another reason that an employee might continue the free English lessons even after completing the requisite sessions. In what is fast becoming the epicenter of the land of opportunity, ambitions extend beyond working at a casino. Many of the workers were professionals in their old countries, including one former Mexican attorney working as a bar porter and a few teachers who now clean rooms. They use the ESL courses not only to advance within the company, but also to springboard back into the professions they left behind.

For 42-year-old Jorge Cerrado, the English classes have served as a chance to go on to college. The Venezuelan immigrant has worked four years at Bellagio as a cook for in-room dining and holds a second cooking job at Las Vegas' convention center. He takes the ESL courses on his lunch break.

"It's a very good opportunity," said Cerrado. "It's free. The English classes are important because I have a goal. I want to go to college and I'm trying. I'm trying."

Cerrado has a high school diploma, so he'll be skipping GED courses, which the casino also offers to employees.

"I knew some words when I start[ed], but I didn't speak nothing," recalled Cerrado. "I understood some words but no phrases and no dialogue. After starting at Bellagio, I can use adjectives and combine words [into sentences]."

Granted, the standards for proficiency may not be quite the same between casino-run ESL programs and those at public schools, but at least the illiteracy rate among the willing isn't increasing at this non-educational facility the way it did for years among the Spanish-speaking bilingual ed school children of California, where teachers would heap praise on third-graders when they managed merely to recite the alphabet.

Five years after California parents shocked the pro-bilingual education establishment when they showed that they actually wanted their kids to be able to speak English, and voted for the "racist" Proposition 227 (search) that killed compulsory bilingual education in that state, the most extreme bilingual program is still in place in New York, where a federal consent decree signed by the Board of Education in 1974 essentially makes it illegal for public schools to teach English to kids who speak a different language at home, including to those who are American-born. The situation is such that Chinese and Hispanic kids have to spend time after school and on weekends supplementing their English learning.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged Bellagio guest room attendant who wouldn't even pick up a ringing telephone for fear that the caller might speak English became confident enough to pick up the phone by the end of her four-month English course at the casino. Another employee, whose English skills needed some honing through the program for her job as a bus person, a few weeks ago interviewed to become assistant manager at the hotel's buffet restaurant.

In the end, it's all really no different from how millions of new Americans make their way in every town and city across the country when they're not being obstructed by public education. Sometimes it takes a private corporation that isn't in the education business to remind us of that.

Julia Gorin is the author of the newly released "The Buddy Chronicles," available through

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