Suzette Frey: On speaking the same language
When Suzette Frey was 7 years old, she found herself translating between her English grandmother and Texas godmother. “They both understood me, but not each other,” she said. “I wanted them to be able to talk to each other.” At50, Suzette is still bridging language barriers to help others communicate. In 2013, she was voted Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) – Monroe County, Inc.’s Volunteer of the Year.
Now a veteran of 24 years of teaching English with LVA affiliates, Frey now teaches the only large group classes still being held in at the LVA headquarters on United Street. National and state funding have cut staff and office space and both are sorely needed, said Mary Casanova, executive director since 1992, but now part-time due to budget cuts.
“Staff cutbacks means not enough attention is being paid to tutors who need training and students who are waiting,” said Casanova. “Our program is suffering. We need at least two full time people to train and support volunteers and students, but can’t afford them. We have a great volunteer staff still working one on one and in small groups. Without them we would not be here. Before the budget cut, we helped 400 students annually. Now, our numbers are way down. Our waiting list of students is huge. Our office is closed much of the time. In the meantime, Suzette Frey is taking the overflow of students and she’s great. She is helping to fill the gaps of folks who we can’t place with a one-to-one tutor.”
Students new and old crowded around Frey’s table in a recent beginners class. She handed out dual language dictionaries to those hailing from Haiti, Cuba, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Czech Republic. Some could read and write English; others could speak only haltingly; all welcomed the chance to fully hear, learn and pronounce English correctly.
Frey read aloud from a shared text, one sentence at a time, directing students to repeat her words in unison. “I’m the pronunciation Nazi,” said the cheerleader teacher in a red Minnie Mouse “Sweet as can be” T-shirt. Besides English, Frey – an internet designer — speaks Spanish, French and German.
“There are many English words that are spelled the same — does and does for example — but are pronounced differently and have two different meanings. They don’t sound the same way they’re written. They have to be heard to be understood and I try to do so ‘accent neutral,'” said the San Antonio, Texas, native.
Although Frey slips easily into her hometown drawl, she earned her “neutral accent” by way of an acting degree from Baylor University. She started teaching with LVA in San Antonio in 1990; she continued her LVA teaching after moving to Key West with her husband in 2008 and learning that many local students in need of tutoring lost their teachers when they left for the summer. Frey jumped in. She has now had some students for several years, others come and go.
Frey’s classes are full and more students are waiting. “People think they need to speak another language to be an LVA volunteer,” she said. “You only need to speak English. You’re teaching students your language and you grew up speaking it. LVA needs volunteers and you don’t have to speak any language but English.”
And Frey’s students are grateful that she’s sharing her mother tongue. Lucy, a Key West housekeeper who once practiced medicine in Russia, reads and writes English well but comes to class to better understand the spoken word. “I love Suzette! She helps me speak correctly.”
“I like her very much,” said Joseph, a young former math teacher from Haiti who speaks Creole and Spanish. “She makes you speak English.”
“Teacher is good,” volunteers Katka of the Czech Republic. “I’m a good student and she’s perfect.”
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