But they were eager to talk about their recent experience in which they used their new language to teach others about what it is like to immigrate to this country.
To do that, they and 32 other ESL students from Hamilton have been making a CD of their stories at a professional sound studio at Jack Straw Productions, a nonprofit audio-arts center in the University District.
"There's a lot of self-segregation between ESL students and non-ESL students," explained Danielle Eidenberg-Noppe, education director at Jack Straw. "We wanted them to be able to learn about each other without forcing them to speak to each other face to face."
At the studio, each student read into a microphone a story that he or she had written and then added sound effects from the studio's computer.
"It's a really powerful experience for a recent immigrant to hear themselves speaking English into a microphone," Eidenberg-Noppe said. "And not only do they speak, but they are on the computer, editing and cutting and pasting sounds." Although the students gathered around the table were smiling, many of their stories and sound effects reflected the difficulty of leaving behind their extended families and homes for a strange, new country.
Some of the students, including Karen Galicia, 13, from Mexico, said that they had used airplane sounds to illustrate their long journeys here. Galicia also included the sound of crying as people said goodbye.
"We made a cooking sound, eating sounds, a loud barking sound," said Phong Huynh, 13, from Vietnam.
"Woof, woof," a few kids intoned.
The sounds were from a party thrown for Huynh's family by friends and relatives before they left their homeland.
"It was our 'Goodbye, Vietnam' party," he said.
Other students included the ringing of the telephone, such as Roxena Lazo, 12, who said that the sound represents her mother talking to her grandmother in El Salvador.
Some students recorded stories about the things they miss from their former homes. Kathleen Chaisaklert, 12, from Thailand, tried to replicate the sounds of the New Year celebration, which is what she misses the most about her country.
Alonso Herrara, 12, from Mexico, had spent time in California before coming to Seattle, and with the other children, recreated the sound of a Carl's Jr. restaurant, a hamburger chain popular in California.
"That's, like, my favorite restaurant," he said. Some of the kids pretended to order; another took orders.
"They couldn't stop giggling," said Chapman, who accompanied the students to the studio. "They were just beside themselves."
Although the kids smile and chatter, Chapman said that the project taught her a lot about how hard the transition between countries can be.
"This has been an eye-opener," Chapman said. "We really learned the difference between an immigrant and a refugee. Some left for America because of war, starvation or politics. They're not here because they want to be. Knowing that, they're really good eggs, really happy spirits. It's got to be an adjustment for them." Not all came fleeing disaster. Hoa Ta, 12, from Vietnam, said her family wanted to give her a chance to study and make a good living some day, opportunities that are much scarcer in her native country. Others came because one of their parents had already become established here. Angelica Juarez, 12, from Mexico, remembers her father coming to their home to take them to Seattle, were he had steady work.
After all the stories have been recorded, the technicians at Jack Straw Productions will make a compilation CD, and each child will receive a copy. At a party to celebrate the finished project, the students will have snacks and listen to what they have done.
The stories will then appear on KBCS-FM, 91.3, as part of the radio station's Saturday morning "Do Tell" series. The series, which ran for the last six months but is on hiatus as more material is developed, has presented the stories of students who have done similar projects with Jack Straw.
Each installment, about two to five minutes long, presents the story of one student.
"It's a great way for the parents to get to hear what their children have done," said Joan Rabinowitz, executive director of Jack Straw. People interested in tuning in can check www.jackstraw.org for the new schedule, she said.