Now virtual, English conversation program ‘has really blossomed’

People on Zoom computer screen
Participants in the August 1 virtual English Language Conversation session, led by Conversation Facilitator Nancy Cohen (top left) and Adult Education and Career Services Librarian Rashmi Swain (top center).

“I live alone, and so I don’t have anyone to talk to. I feel great that today I had a chance to meet others virtually, and I learned many new words in English.”

-Participant in English Language Conversation program

Before the pandemic, English language learners came together every Saturday morning at the Main Library to practice their speaking skills with volunteer conversation facilitators. The program, English Language Conversation, was an opportunity to meet others, learn new vocabulary, and work toward fluency in casual conversations.

So when participants were notified in March that the weekly sessions would be on hold while library buildings were closed, “they were sorry to hear that,” says Adult Education and Career Services Librarian Rashmi Swain. “They told me that they looked forward to the library’s in-person sessions every Saturday.”

‘I like this group so much’: Making the move to Zoom

Inspired by participants’ comments, Swain and the volunteer facilitators decided to move the weekly program online, to the Zoom platform. The first virtual conversation hour was April 30.

On that day, six participants, including one from Texas, talked about their pets, the many ways to cook an egg, and how everyone was coping at home. One participant shared, “I live alone, and so I don’t have anyone to talk to. I feel great that today I had a chance to meet others virtually, and I learned many new words in English.”

In going virtual, “English Language Conversation has really blossomed,” says Manager of Adult Services Alexandra Skinner. “The collaboration between staff, volunteers, and patrons to make connections and foster learning at these meetings is stellar.”

As one ongoing participant shared: “In the first couple of meetings, we were not very familiar with the Zoom meeting process. But now we feel comfortable using Zoom. New people have joined this group. We discuss new topics and we learn a lot of new vocabulary and idioms. I like this group so much. I really appreciate the time and effort that library volunteers and the library staff have put in.”

Swain adds: “We’re grateful to all the conversation facilitators for leading the Saturday sessions. Their professionalism and dedication is commendable. Andrew Byrne, Nancy Cohen, Alan Fox, Flo Jerousek, and Stephen Jordan put the participants at ease with their stellar interpersonal skills.”

‘Unrest, curfew, N95’: Learning new words for global experiences

In June, attendance grew to 10 people at each session, with multiple library staff members working with volunteer facilitators. Participants discussed new vocabulary words like demonstration, unrest, curfew, stress, diversity, freelance, self-employed, gradual, surgical, N95, patient, and doctor, as well as authoritative sites for health information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, and the National Library of Medicine.

“The program has been going strong all year, and in moving to a virtual format has seen growth from around the world,” Skinner says, adding that participants have joined from the Philippines, Ecuador, Seattle, Texas, and Washington DC.

English Language Conversation continues virtually through the rest of the year.