MORRISVILLE — When the town started offering free English as a Second Language classes, everyone expected Indian-Americans and Latinos to take part.
But another group is showing the most interest: Chinese-Americans.
Morrisville is known for its large Asian-American population. The town has the highest concentration of Indian-Americans – about 20 percent – of any Wake County municipality.
But as the ESL program shows, Morrisville’s Asian community is diverse. With 483 residents, Chinese-Americans are the second-largest ethnic group within the town’s Asian demographic. (Morrisville also has 160 Korean-Americans, 158 Vietnamese-Americans, 100 Filipino-Americans and 67 Japanese-Americans.)
The Chinese-American community in the Triangle has grown nearly 80 percent over the past decade and now stands at more than 15,000. The region is home to nearly half of the Chinese-Americans in the state, according to U.S. Census data.
A group of investors attracted by the area’s demographic plans to build a Chinatown in Morrisville, with retail stores and a cultural center at the Prime Outlets mall.
Learning a new language
Abbe Dutkiewicz, 62, was born in Taiwan and grew up speaking Chinese. This is the first time she’s taken a class to learn English. Most of her knowledge of the language comes from her American husband.
Even so, Dutkiewicz is one of the more advanced English speakers in the Morrisville class.
“There’s always more to learn. I want to read and speak better,” she said. “I love the class.”
The classes, which are offered four days a week, are run by volunteers; drop-ins are welcome.
The idea for the program started with Morrisville resident Lembe Tayilo, who used to volunteer with an ESL program in Washington, D.C.
After she took the town’s Morrisville 101 citizen-education class last fall and learned more about the town’s services, she wondered why there wasn’t a free local program to help people learn English.
“I noticed the increase in the community of foreigners,” she said. “I was noticing also that they did not speak English. I met a family from Africa, and they were asking me where to go for ESL classes and I didn’t have an answer.”
Tayilo talked to Town Councilman Steve Rao, who put her in touch with James Worsdale, the town’s cultural resources specialist. Worsdale and Tayilo spent six months recruiting and training volunteers.
A community service
“I thought it was a great fit for the community,” Worsdale said. “It’s very much an international community, and it was a group we weren’t serving.”
Worsdale and Tayilo hope the program makes residents new to the English language feel more welcome. They also hope the classes will encourage people to take advantage of other town programs.
The program started in September, and classes average five to 10 students. Participants range from former engineers to school teachers, Tayilo said.
Not knowing the language has limited their job opportunities, Worsdale said.
Lina Na, 40, drives 30 minutes from Cary to take the class in hopes that a better grasp on the English language will improve her chances of landing a job. Na, a stay-at-home mom, used to drive a taxi in China.
“I’m a housewife now,” she said. “I want to learn more in case I need to get a job. I want to learn everything.”
Na even rallied her fellow class members to push for a longer class on Thursdays. She wanted an extra hour of instruction.
“It’s wonderful,” she said of the class.
Diane Bellamy, who teaches the class, said her students are inspirational.
“It gives me hope that I can learn a second language,” she said.
Staff writer David Bracken contributed to this report.
Ramos: 919-460-2609, Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews