When Covid-19 forced New Zealand to close the country’s borders Miles Fitton flipped a coin.
It was to decide whether he should follow suit and close the Nelson English Centre entirely or try to keep it open.
“At the beginning of Covid, who knew,” says the centre’s chief executive.
Before lockdown, the centre had 80 students from all over the world, along with 14 staff.
Then, almost all those students left and went home. Staff were made redundant and scraped by on government subsidies.
But now the school has had a lifeline – a government grant programme that deploys teachers to instead help Nelson residents who have never formally studied English.
They currently have 20 students ranging in age from in the 30s to in their late 70s and from countries like Japan, Belarus, Afghanistan, and Latvia.
Some have been in the country for more than 20 years.
“Some have never had the opportunity,” Miles says. “Or they have been in a niche which meant they never needed to. But now they are loving the language.”
The eight-week course is free for students.
Yuko Yamamoto has been in New Zealand almost 18 years but says she never prioritised learning English as she raised her children.
“Now I have extra time. It lets me learn more about New Zealand culture, it’s so nice and everybody is so friendly.”
Serge and Ksenia Pashkevich arrived in Nelson from Belarus three years ago but since have worked from home.
“It just means that we don’t get enough speaking experience,” says Serge.
“That’s why we are here – we want to improve our writing and speaking skills,” says Ksenia. “It is vital, and we are loving it.”
Larisa Dzonza came to New Zealand from Latvia 14 years ago but never learned English formally.
“I want to fit into society more. I also like to read scientific magazines, and sometimes there are complicated words there. This course helps me recognise them. Even on the TV, I can understand the news more.”
Akiko Crowther has been here for 15 years working as a calligrapher, but recently her husband, who is English, had a stroke. She knew that she had to take learning the language more seriously.
“Suddenly my conversation is much better. I went to dinner with friends and I could hear their conversation in detail. It was so delightful. It’s a wonderful experience.”
It has also allowed Miles to hire back almost all his staff and he hopes by the time the grant scheme finishes, the country’s border situation will be clearer.
“This has been a rollercoaster year – do we shut it down, do we hibernate? My gut feeling was to stay open and do whatever you can to stay alive.”
So now he is on a mission to help 50 other residents who want to learn English as a second language, before June next year.
“It’s a really great way to invest in our Nelson population and our teachers. All that money stays here, everything stays in the Nelson community.”