Bridging linguistic and cultural divides


Holyoke Community College Career Focus
Fall, 2013


When ESL professor Rubaba Matin was asked to choose a book for HCC’s READ program, she picked Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake,” a story of an Indian family’s search for the American dream.

“It is a poignant story of immigrant experiences: cultural clashes, difficulties of integration and the pangs of intergenerational conflicts,” reads the explanation she wrote for a poster in the library. “The Namesake is the story of my ESL students from different countries, and it is my story too,” she wrote.

Matin, a native of the former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, uses her own experience to help students cross linguistic and cultural divides.

“What I went through in the beginning is what my students go through,” she said during an interview in her cozy office in the Fine and Performance Arts building.

“People whose first language is not English are empowered when they learn English,” she said. “It gives them that sense of connection to their community.”

Areas covered in her ESL classes include reading, writing, speaking and listening.

“The purpose is to have a future, a career, a profession,” she said. She added that some were professionals in other countries and must learn the language to transfer their skills.

Matin’s native tongue is Bengali. She learned English at a young age when she went with her parents, both physicians, for their four-year stint pursuing post-graduate medical degrees in London.

So, she said, her own difficulties fitting in when she moved to the United States were more about culture than language.

Although it might have seemed logical to go into medicine like her parents, she was drawn to teaching after realizing, in high school, how much she enjoyed helping classmates.

She studied at the University of Chittagong and the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, focusing on English literature. Then she taught English for engineering purposes at the University of Tripoli in Libya.

She came to the United States in 1984, moving with her husband and two children to stay with relatives in Houston, Texas. From there they went to Chicago, where she got a second masters in applied linguistics at the University of Illinois, with a goal of teaching the practical aspects of English, or English as a Second Language.

The family moved to Massachusetts in 1990 — they live in Wilbraham – and she has been teaching at HCC since 1996. Before that, she taught part time at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and at Westfield State College.

Matin’s office is filled with gifts from students. Her favorite decoration, though, is a large map of the world with pushpins marking the countries she has visited, a reminder that her students come from all over.

While most of her students speak Spanish, an increasing number are Russian. During the last few years, more have come from the Middle East and South Asia.

All ESL classes are taught in English. The first level is a non-credit beginners’ course, followed by four credit-bearing levels and then mainstreaming into regular classes.

Matin stresses the importance of remembering their roots. “I remind my students that they should never forget their cultural identity,” she said.

Many students go on to enroll at the University of Massachusetts or other four-year colleges to study nursing, business and other areas.

“It’s extremely rewarding for me,” Matin said. “When I am at commencement I’m so excited and happy. They are seeing their American dream coming true.”

People whose first language is not English are empowered when they learn English. It gives them that sense of connection to their community.

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