Kernels learn the language

Local woman teaches English to Cedar Rapids' Latin players

Cedar Rapids Kernels' shortstop Engelb Vielma (left) and pitcher Fernando Romero pose for a photo at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Vielma, from Venezuela, and Romero, from Dominican Republic, take English lessons to further their language skills. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Cedar Rapids Kernels' shortstop Engelb Vielma (left) and pitcher Fernando Romero pose for a photo at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Vielma, from Venezuela, and Romero, from Dominican Republic, take English lessons to further their language skills. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

CEDAR RAPIDS – Would you like to eat frog legs?

Engelb Vielma and Fernando Romero looked at each other when asked that question. The Cedar Rapids Kernels players were confused.

Abby Pumroy had to explain it to them in their native Spanish.

“Ancas de rana,” she told them.

Ancas de rana. Frog legs.

Romero wrinkled his nose and shook his head back and forth.

“What?” he said in English. “No chance. No chance.”

The parent Minnesota Twins have enlisted Pumroy, a native of Puerto Rico and longtime Spanish teacher in town, to help Kernels players from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic with their English and simply playing and living in the United States.

Iowa, of course, is just a tad different from Santo Domingo and Caracas.

“We are well aware as an organization that one of the big keys to success, when it comes to Latin players, is being able to adjust to the culture. The food, the (housing) family, people, you name it,” said Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, a Venezuelan whose first professional pitching assignment was to Burlington, Iowa, in 1993. “There are many things around the minor leagues that are challenging. We all went through it.”

This is the second season the Kernels have been affiliated with the Twins but the first that players have had access to these classes. Pumroy is a natural fit, as she and her husband, Tom, have been a billet family for numerous Latin players over the years.

They had three living with them at the start of this season but have an empty house at the moment, as pitchers Josue Montanez and Felix Jorge were sent down to Rookie league and outfielder Jeremias Pineda is there as well, rehabbing an injury.

“They just want the kids to be as fluent in English as they can possibly be,” said Pumroy. “We know that there are some people who have a hard time learning the language and will struggle no matter what. Others are just shy. They know the language but are afraid to use it.”

Latin Kernels asked for interviews by the media often have bilingual teammates – or Arteaga – help out with translation and making sure the player’s thoughts are accurately expressed. But when you ask a member of the Kernels coaching staff if a particular player can speak English and how well, the answer is always the same.

“Go and talk to them. They’ve got to learn.”

“All of the teams are realizing that if we are going to communicate with these kids, we need to be on the same page,” Pumroy said. “If you are here in the United States, you need to learn English. Yes, we have translators. But there’s a point where you’ve got to walk the walk and do the talk.”

On Friday morning, Vielma and Romero (both just 19 years old) arrived late to Veterans Memorial Stadium for their class, though it was understandable since the Kernels had a game the night before in Peoria and didn’t arrive back home until the wee hours. Pumroy expected pitcher Yorman Landa (from Venezuela, like Vielma) to join the group as well, but Romero explained to her in Spanish that he had undergone surgery on his shoulder a couple days earlier and was going to be gone from the team the rest of the season.

Romero then told Pumroy that he, too, had been in Minneapolis to be checked out by Twins doctors and was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right, throwing elbow. The Twins want him to have Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, which would keep him out a year, but he isn’t sure he wants to have the procedure done.

He said he had talked the night before to fellow Dominican Miguel Sano, a Twins super prospect who underwent TJ in the spring.

“He said it was good,” Romero said.

After all of the talk about injuries, Pumroy finally got down to the intended business of the day. She gave Vielma and Romero a newspaper story about the United States World Cup soccer team, which they read together.

She was going to make sure the boys were replying to e-mail inquires from Jose Marzan, the Twins’ Latin America Field Coordinator. Marzan had complained the players weren’t responding to him, so Pumroy told them they had to e-mail Marzan to tell him what they were learning in English class.

She also distributed copies of menus from local restaurants, talking about them and making sure the players understood what they contained.

“A lot of times, they’re reading but have no clue what they are trying to order,” she said. “I know that when we would take them out, they would like to go to places where they have pictures on the menu. So that way they would see it and be able to say ‘OK, I want this here.’”

The players seemed to understand most of what was on these menus.

“Bleu cheese, I don’t like,” Romero said, pointing to an item.

“What is Chicken Angelo?” Vielma asked about a particular pasta dish.

The talk turned to fast food, an unfortunate staple for players, especially on the road. The Kernels have postgame meals prepared for them at the ballpark at home.

“No French fries,” Romero said. “They are bad for you.”

And the players said they are hestitant to eat at any Chinese restaurants.

“All Chinese restaurants in the Dominican are dirty,” Romero said.

“The same in Venezuela,” Vielma said.

After about an hour, the class ended. Another one was scheduled for Saturday morning, with more in the future.

If this was any indication, Vielma and Romero will be just fine moving forward as they try to conquer a language that could help them greatly in their professional baseball careers. The Twins definitely hope that’s the case.

“I want to be completely honest with you,” Arteaga said. “In the end, it’s all about a decision they need to make. They need to make that decision of ‘Do I want to learn English?’ It comes down to that. If they want to learn, they will learn. Can they block out being (too self-conscious) when people say they are making mistakes (speaking), that they have an accent, stuff like that? If they can’t, then it becomes an obstacle, as opposed to being something great for them.”

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