The woman helping customers at the Naples discount shoe store may have to strain to understand every English word — but she is trying.
Barbara Guzmeli, 46, meets weekly with a tutor. She didn't know any English two years ago when she fled Cuba, where she was a medical doctor. She took a job at Payless in part to practice and learn.
"I said to myself, 'Yes, I can learn English. How can I not? I studied for an extremely difficult profession,' " said Guzmeli, who is a student at the Literacy Volunteers of Collier County.
Census Bureau statistics recently released showed a greater percentage of children and adults in Collier County who don't speak English at home are speaking English better and revealed dramatic gains made in speaking abilities during the past five years.
"It is quite a myth that immigrants don't want to learn English," said Robert Breitbard, coordinator for the adult English for Speakers of Other Languages program for Collier County public schools. "By the first, and definitely by the second generation, the language is seen as something from the old country and usually seen as something of an embarrassment."
Numbers showed the percentage of 5- to 17-year-olds in Collier who spoke Spanish at home and also speak English "very well" soared from 56 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2005. For children who speak other Indo-European languages, including Haitian Creole, the percentage shot from 59 to 92 during the same time.
More non-native adults are speaking English, too. A higher level of English fluency was found in adults 18 to 64 years old. For Spanish speakers, the percentage who speak English "very well" rose from 36 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2005, while the percentage of Indo-European languages at that fluency level increased from 54 percent to 57 percent.
Educators attribute gains to a focus on fluency and literacy in schools and at nonprofit organizations, along with immigrants coming with higher literacy levels in their native languages. The county's healthy job market exposes immigrants to the chance for a better life if they do learn English, educators said.
Marie Rose, 35, a Naples Manor resident, came from Haiti four years ago. She never has studied English and recently signed up for classes planned for Haitians through an East Naples organization. She buses tables at a restaurant, but she'd like to be a certified nursing assistant.
"When someone talks to me, I want to understand," she said through a translator. "This is America and everything is in English."
Educators said numbers and the students they meet dispel some people's perception that immigrants in Collier don't want to learn English and assimilate into this country.
Although the Collier School District has doubled the number of free adult English courses offered in the past five years, the demand for classes outweighs what the district can offer, Breitbard said.
Classes serve about 4,000 students a year, and past sessions have notched waiting lists of up to 150 students. The district scaled back marketing of its classes last year at Haitian and Latino supermarkets to avoid waiting lists, he said.
Tony Rodriguez, a senior vice president at a Naples bank and volunteer at the Literacy Volunteers of Collier County, understands some people might be annoyed to hear Spanish in restaurants or stores.
The Daily News letters to the editor pages often host readers who are frustrated or concerned about immigrants not speaking English.
"We citizens of the United States have done a disservice to the Spanish population within our borders. Be it through kindness or stupidity, we have not encouraged them to learn English. We have made it easy — too easy — for them to remain status quo by adopting their language," wrote Milla Price in an Aug. 11 edition.
Rodriguez, who came from Cuba at age 4, says immigrants' continued use of their native tongue isn't because people don't want to assimilate — it's likely because they've just arrived. More than 21,000 of the foreign-born people living in Collier in 2005 had entered the country in 2000 or later, Census numbers show.
"There's a constant wave. When people came to Ellis Island, there was a wave but the wave stopped," Rodriguez said. "For some reason, there's a perception that immigrants don't want to learn English and assimilate here and that's the furthest from the truth. ... They certainly want their children to assimilate because that's how you're successful in this country."
Research shows immigrant families are making the transition to English more quickly than in the past.
"Historically, this transition took three generations, with adult immigrants who often did not learn English, children who were bilingual in English and their parents' language, and a third generation that spoke English almost exclusively," according to a June report from Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington.
A study by University of California-Irvine and Princeton University professors followed more than 5,000 second-generation immigrant children from Miami and San Diego. It showed that 88 percent of those children prefer English, though 90 percent were speaking another language at home.
About 57 percent of Latinos believe immigrants have to speak English to be a part of American society, according to a Pew Hispanic Center survey, a nonpartisan Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Census numbers show gains for both children and adults statewide in the past five years but the increases weren't as dramatic.
Still, more than 20 percent of Florida's adults experience literacy issues that severely affect their lives and families, Gov. Jeb Bush stated in an Aug. 10 proclamation declaring September as adult and family literacy month. More than 348,000 adults benefited from basic education or literacy services from public schools or organizations in 2004-05, it said.
Lisa Church, of the Education Foundation of Collier County, was encouraged by the recent gains. The foundation and the School District provide evening family literacy programs.
The first program started four years ago, she said, and has expanded to a handful of schools that draw up to 45 families.
"We have a lot of organizations that recognize that as an issue, if addressed, it will make our entire community better," said Church, vice president of educational programs. "I think the increased attention will be able to make some differences both for adults and the chances of the child and then it snowballs. There's a cycle that perpetuates."
María Torres, director of diversity and the English for Speakers of Other Languages program for youth at Collier schools, said educators have focused on accessing what students need to improve their levels.
"There's no magic program that solves the problem. I think the School District has not created new programs but has become more focused in terms of accessing students," she said. "The district has placed a lot of emphasis on their minority students. Number one, it's required with 'No Child Left Behind' and number two, it's the right thing to do."
She also said many non-native English speakers come with high literacy levels in their native tongue, which makes it easier for them to grasp English and excel in school. But she estimates it will be five to 10 years before other education gains, such as better graduation rates for Hispanics, are seen.
Elizabeth Acosta, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Collier County, said more than half of their adult students have at least two years of college in their own country. Many have studied some English and may read it well.
Literacy Volunteers provides tutoring and small groups to learn English, and serves about 350 students.
"We have a very high level of literacy from people who come from other countries. They have gone through a university and they know what it takes to learn a new language," Acosta said, noting professionals often come from Colombia, Poland, Bolivia and Cuba.
Many were engineers, teachers, architects and doctors in their home countries and take service jobs here. Immigrants want to learn English to advance to better jobs, educators say, and the county's healthy economy shows them there's potential here.
"The opportunity is there and whenever you have an explosive job market. I think you see people better able to see a career ladder," Breitbard said. "It is very clear to them that the way I'm going to climb that ladder is going to be hindered unless my English improves."
Guzmeli, the Cuban woman studying English, is being tutored by Rodriguez, the Naples banker. She endured 10 years of higher education in Cuba. She hopes learning English will help her return to her passion — medicine. She wants professional training so she can return to caring for some patients in some way.
"I'm just a little behind because of language difficulties," she said. "I need to practice."