Published on 30 October 2023
Written by John Zavos

Out & About in NYC: Ellis Island ESOL

A week visiting my son in New York City!  I took the opportunity to visit the fantastic museum on Ellis Island, the small island just off Manhattan where some 12 million migrants to the US were registered and processed between 1892 and 1924. This was a boom time for migration to the US, when people came from all over the world, but especially from Southern and Eastern Europe – some escaping persecution, some looking for something better than grinding poverty.  How familiar this sounds today – despite the irony that Southern and Eastern Europe are perceived more as buffer zones protecting Europe against the movement of people, rather sources of movement themselves.

The Ellis Island Museum is huge and enthralling, full of fascinating stories and images of the migrant experience – the terrors and the challenges, the uncertainties and the vulnerabilities that so often follow the decision to move.  You can never take in everything in one visit, but I was determined not to miss references to language learning!  Very little language learning took place at Ellis, although interpreters had a major role shadowing inspectors and other officials seeking to process people as quickly as possible – New York was then, and remains, a strikingly multilingual city.

In the museum, I nevertheless found some interesting images of language learning as part of the process of settlement in Chicago in the late 19th/early 20th century. You will notice that the classrooms seem male-heavy! This was not always the case (see below!).

This image is taken in a Settlement House in 1905. Settlement Houses, set up by local people, sought to provide services such as childcare, primary healthcare, and English classes in urban areas of high migrant settlement.

Ilustrative image

Ilustrative image

This image shows an English class at a Chicago based employer in 1919. Some employers provided English classes to help workers settle and to help them communicate at work. 

Multiagency spaces in localities which integrate language learning alongside other services, catering to diverse needs and aspirations. Employer-based language learning to facilitate integration and professional development.  Hang on, could we learn something here….?

Another image showing an ESOL classroom from the period – this time not so male-heavy!

Ilustrative image

Ilustrative image

An interpreter working at Ellis Island, Fiorello LaGuardia. He interpreted for speakers of Italian, German, Yiddish and Croatian. He went on to become Mayor of New York. The other images on this page are taken by me, but this one is courtesy of the fantastic educational resources provided by the Ellis Island Foundation.

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