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School helps Chinese women take away English

It's an autumn Sunday afternoon in Swansea city centre. The view from the Kingsway Centre to the streets below is of strollers and shoppers; people at leisure. But for a group of women in Swansea's Chinese community, this is not a day of rest. They are poring over worksheets, grappling with the traps and complexities of English.

Most are involved in catering, running restaurants or takeaways. Sunday is the only time they can spare. They come from places as far flung as Haverfordwest nearly 50 miles away; and are dedicated students - even when the going gets tough.

The Chinese community scattered around south west Wales numbers around a thousand. Inevitably, some women experience a strong sense of isolation. Their Sunday classes are demanding work but also a social occasion; a chance to gossip over a bowl of dumpling soup during a break in the two-hour sessions.

Most arrived from Hong Kong without speaking English. Yet their children, brought up in Britain, often speak little else. So while mothers learn English on one floor, on another volunteers from the Chinese community teach the children Cantonese and Chinese culture. In fact, the mothers' class developed from those of the children - having travelled in with their offspring, they wanted to do something more interesting than sit around or go to the shops The catalyst for all this has been Wai-wai Lee, a lively, energetic woman who came to Swansea in 1975, and was the force behind the establishment of the city's Chinese centre eight years ago. It also owes much to Swansea college, which offered a base at an economic rent and has run the English classes since 1996.

Some pupils progress faster than others. Yuk Ling Yip has lived in Swansea for 33 years and has been coming to the classes for five years, but admits she still struggles. "It is difficult because I have to work all the time," she said in still-broken English. "But I like the friendship and will come again next year." For classmate Lina Lee, retirement from the takeaway business has given her the time to make progress. "I feel much more confident," she said.

It helps that college tutor Nesta Steffans, who runs the classes in a businesslike yet good-humoured manner, doesn't speak Cantonese. The situation forces concentration on the matter in hand, a lesson on travel, and a practical exercise based on how to get from home to the right terminal at Heathrow airport, for instance. Other sessions might focus on "survival" English, to enable the women to tackle a visit to the doctor, for instance. "I ask them to help each other," said Ms Steffans.

Despite the improvement in their linguistic skills, some still need support when grappling with bureaucracy. Mrs Lee, on hand to write letters and plead their case, finds the Chinese community has more clout now that it revolves round an established base.

She had her own struggles when it came to getting out and learning English. "My father wanted me to run the business - we had a takeaway," she said. "Many of the women are in the same situation. Their lives have improved a lot by coming here and talking.

"At first their husbands weren't very pleased - if they were here working with us they were doing fewer hours at the business. But when they go home and say what they've been doing, their husbands enjoy hearing and are proud of them. You can't rely on your husband all the time. What happens if he falls ill or isn't there?

"Ten or 20 years ago, if you asked the women to come out and speak to people they would shake their heads and say that they didn't want to do it. Now they're getting much more involved in the community - in the Chinese New Year celebrations and the carnival."

Swansea college's acting principal, Howard Burton, said: "Part of our mission is to widen access. We have a lot of people making contact with local communities. If people approach us with an idea like this, we want to go with it. The big lesson for me is that Mrs Lee came up with the initiative."

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