When husband and wife co-owners of Alfredos Landscaping, Alfredo and Veronica del Olmo, relocated to St. John from Argentina more than a decade ago, both were native Spanish speakers who did not speak any English but strived to overcome the language barriers in every way they could.
We began working in the landscaping business, but since we worked together on St. John, we didnt learn any English because we were constantly speaking to each other in Spanish, said Veronica. So after six months of being here, we realized we werent learning anything and decided to start working in an environment where people spoke English.
The couple began working part time shifts at Morgans Mango in addition to their landscaping occupation to absorb English lessons from those around them. People at Morgans Mango taught us to name things, make phrases they helped us a lot, said Veronica, who also diligently studied English-language books and videos with Alfredo each day.
Reflecting back on their language struggles, Veronica said one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects about not being able to speak any English is the inability to communicate.
At some point of the learning process, you begin to understand the language and what is being said to you, but you cant communicate back, said Veronica. And you feel so frustrated when you cant communicate with others.
Now a decade later, Alfredo and Veronica are owners of a thriving landscaping business where most of their hard-working employees do not speak English, but Veronica is committed to helping them learn the language by holding classes once a week for any employees who wish to attend.
Most of the employees here are originally from the Dominican Republic and lived in Puerto Rico before coming here, said Veronica. Some of them have lived here for 10 years and do not know any English. Out of the 20 employees at Alfredos Landscaping, only six people, including Alfredo and Veronica, are able to communicate in English.
Beginning more than one month ago, after the recent arrival of baby Malena, the busy mom of three sets up chairs and organizes English lessons in her office every Thursday after work. The lessons are free and open to all the employees who want to come, and if I have one student, I will teach one, if I have 10, I will teach 10, said Veronica, who currently is teaching eight employees on a weekly basis.
I just wanted to help; we have a really good relationship with all of our employees, and if not only for me and my company, I want to help them learn English for their own lives, even when they are going to the bank or to the store, said Veronica, telling a story about one of her workers who recently was distressed after going to the bank accidentally being paid $600 more than he should have received. The man tried to explain the situation to the bank teller but could not speak any English and was turned away. He was very upset and he called me to come down to the bank and explain it to them in English, and when I did, the bank teller was very appreciative, said Veronica.
Even the most simple tasks such as booking a plane ticket or going to the grocery store become cumbersome when a person does not know English. But it is things like that which make a person feel frustrated you cant get what you need because you dont know any English, said Veronica.
Enthusiastic English Students
The free English lessons have just begun, but the studious employees are already learning proper greetings, how to say good morning and good afternoon, use verbs, thank people, begin to write sentences and are mastering numbers, the alphabet and the calender.
They are really enthusiastic; most of them are 35 years old or more, some are 40 or 50, said Veronica. But they want to learn, and I try to make it fun, to really push them, and to make them not feel ashamed of making mistakes. When you are a Spanish-speaker, it is difficult to learn English because in Spanish, you read the way that you pronounce the words, but in English it is not the same way, explained Veronica. And I know maybe Im not the most qualified person to teach English because I am still learning too, but when you are learning a language, it is easy for you to transmit the ways you know a person will be able to learn because that is the way that I learn too.
It took an entire year of living on St. John before Veronica felt she could hold a conversation in English, and 10 years later, she said she is still learning. I believe I still have a lot of mistakes because I never learned proper English, said Veronica, who most would still consider to be a master of languages since she is fluent in Spanish, French and now, English.
At home, Veronica and Alfredo still speak Spanish to each other and their three children: Luca, 8, Tomas, 5, and Malena, 6 weeks. We believe it is really important to know another language, but for the boys, English is their first language and they speak Spanish with an English accent, said Veronica.
Teaching is a passion possessed by the del Olmos Alfredo teaches tango lessons at St. John School of the Arts and Veronica used to teach high school history in Argentina. I also believe not anyone can teach, you have to have it inside, said Veronica. I always wanted to be a teacher, and even though Im not teaching history, teaching is something I have inside I enjoy teaching other people. Before Veronicas middle child, Tomas, was born, she used to give Spanish lessons to English speakers on St. John.
School of Language on St. John
When Alfredo and Veronica were starting their own landscaping business in 2000, they also had dreams of starting a non-profit school of language on St. John, where qualified teachers could give lessons in various languages German, Spanish, English, French or any other language in which a willing teacher is fluent.
We have the paperwork done, but we never started the school because we were working ourselves, and we didnt ever have enough time to devote to this project, said Veronica. But we still have the spirit to teach.
As for now, the two have their hands tied operating their own business and raising three young and energetic children, but if the opportunity came to start up a school of language on St. John, Veronica said she would do it with the support of others.
I dont believe I could do the school of language by myself, I am not really looking to be any more busy than I am right now, she said smiling and looking over at her daughter, cozily wrapped up in a pink blanket, napping peacefully in a cradle in the corner of the office.
But Ive always had the wish to start teaching again, and I believe at some point we will start the school of language, said Veronica. Maybe even people reading this will feel this is a great idea for the community and something will come out of it from there.