By Nancy Tester | Photograph courtesy of Irena Newland
Irena Newland is blossoming in her new life in the Ozarks. A native of Siberia, she came to Mountain Home in 2000 after meeting and marrying Ozark native Charles Newland. “I caught the biggest fish in the White River!” she says.
Together, the couple runs Newland’s Resort, a trout fishing lodge on the White River. Irena arrived in this country equipped with education and travel experience. She had studied English for years in Russian schools, had achieved a university degree in food engineering, and had worked abroad for 10 years in Azerbaijan. But she found that speaking English in Arkansas is much different than learning English in a Russian school—she had been taught to pronounce words differently.
“We were taught British English,” she says. “That’s much different than American way of speaking.” It was also difficult to understand American slang. “I could read and write English but couldn’t understand what people were saying, but most important, people couldn’t understand me. Many times, Charles was my interpreter. They would look at me, get my sentence, and then turn to him and say, ‘Charles, what did she say?’”
Irena felt frustrated. “I wanted to be understood by people,” she says. “It seemed like people were squeezing their eyes and moving their ears toward me, trying to understand what I had to say.”
Irena heard about Twin Lakes Literacy Council from a friend and decided to get tutoring to improve her pronunciation and conversational skills. She began lessons with volunteer tutor Caron Davis in 2004. They worked together twice a week for three years. They studied pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Irena says that Caron did more than teach her language skills. “She taught me about the American way of life. She helped me to adapt and integrate into American society and Twin Lakes community.”
The two practiced mastering the special sounds of the English language. “The sound ‘th’ is difficult,” Irena says. “For our cultures, it’s almost impolite to show your teeth and tongue, but if you want to sound correct in American English, you have to do it.”
Irena’s interest in her new country led her to begin a new subject at the Literacy Council—studying for the exam to become an American citizen. She began attending citizenship classes led by tutor Billie Seef. To prepare for the test, she had to master facts about American history and government, such as being able to name the U.S. Territories, recite the names of government representatives and tell the year that the Constitution was adopted. As Billie points out, “Most adult Americans could not pass the citizenship test. How many people know the first state? How many people could name three of the original thirteen colonies?”
Her studies inspired Irena to learn more about America than even the citizenship test required. “I want to know and understand the country of the United States that has become a new home for me,” Irena says. She asked Billie to help her study the Declaration of Independence and parts of the Constitution. “We just took a dictionary and went through it,” Billie remarks. “I’ve never had a student even request that before.”
Irena passed the citizenship test in 2012. She is now actively engaged as an American citizen. “I write to my representatives,” she says. “It is our duty to be real Americans and participate in government.”
She helps Charles with publicity, paperwork, and customer service at the resort, and she recently completed an online certification course in English from the Global College of Natural Medicine. She is now a certified nutritional consultant.
Irena, who came to the literacy council as an English student, is now so adept at American English that she volunteers for the council as a speaker. She helps with tutor trainings and interviews with local media, and speaks to area groups about Twin Lakes Literacy Council. “Her story was really fun to share with our listeners,” says KTLO’s Debby Stanuch. “I was just astounded at her command of the English language and her pronunciation.”
When people ask Irena about her accent, she smiles and says, “I have Siberian-Ozark accent.
“I hope that other foreigners can take advantage of the treasure we have in the Twin Lakes area—the literacy council. Maybe they can improve their English, and it could change their life for better as it changed mine.” M! August/September 2016
Visit the following website for more information:
Twin Lakes Literacy Council