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New York Laundromat Doubles As English Classroom

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Immigrants in New York City who want to learn English have a new venue in which to do so - the laundromat.

George Bodarky of member station WFUV tells us about one man's project to teach English in that free time between washing and folding.


GEORGE BODARKY: Amid the gurgling of washers and hum of driers at the Magic Touch Laundromat in northern Manhattan, Hector Canonge is teaching English. His vocabulary lesson starts off with words fitting for the setting.

HECTOR CANONGE: Shirt, shirt. (Translated in Spanish).

BODARKY: Canonge is just standing in front of a wall of stainless steel industrial driers at the head of a bright yellow folding table. His eight students are lined up along the table, four on each side, six women and two men from the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

CANONGE: Pants, pants. (Translated in Spanish).

BODARKY: Canonge says he wanted to offer immigrants in the neighborhood, especially those without documentation, a relaxed setting to learn English.

CANONGE: So many recent immigrants can go to a public school and say, you know, I want to learn English because the first thing they're going to ask you is, well, do you have an ID? Or even the library.

BODARKY: This part of Manhattan has a large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Canonge lives in the neighborhood.

He got the idea for the English classes while doing his own laundry.

CANONGE: I saw many people struggling with the machines, you know, reading, like, the instructions. When do I put the soap? What's wash and what's bleach or what's rinse?

During the day, there is the Korean owner, who tends the place, so even that is - you know, they can't talk to him. They can't say, I need change. You know, give me five dollars in change. And also, he can't speak Spanish, so that's a pain.

Underwear. No? Underwear.

BODARKY: But when you live in a neighborhood where so many people do speak Spanish, it's easy to put off learning English. That's what Myra Kayro, who hails from the Dominican Republic, says happened to her. She's been living in the US for 26 years and became a citizen about six months ago.

MYRA KAYRO: Everybody speaks Spanish in this neighborhood. It's very difficult to speak English and a lot of people speak Spanish.


CANONGE: Not yellow. (Translated in Spanish). Yellow, yellow, yellow.

BODARKY: Canonge is not an ESL teacher by trade. He's an artist. He got some tips for teaching the class from his mom, who is an English teacher. He calls this project The Inward Laundromat Language Institute.

CANONGE: It's not J. Lo., like J. Lo.

BODARKY: For NPR News, I'm George Bodarky in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

George Bodarky