Julie Dina: Welcome to Library Matters. I am your host Julie Dina. Our topic on today’s episode is English Conversation Clubs. Have you ever wondered about our widely acclaimed English Conversation Clubs, well today we have two special guests who will tell us all about it. First, I would like to welcome Nancy Sillcox who is the librarian too from Quince Orchard.
Nancy Sillcox: Hi.
Julie Dina: Welcome Nancy. I would also like to welcome Annie Etches who is our English Conversation Club facilitator for Quince Orchard’s Library.
Annie Etches: Hi Julie, nice to be here this morning.
Julie: Welcome. So let’s just go ahead and dive in. Can you guys tell me a little bit about yourself so our listeners can know all about you?
Nancy: Hi I am Nancy Sillcox, I am the Adult Services librarian at Quince Orchard Library since 2008. And I have also worked as a information specialist at the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu Hawaii and also at Childrens Library in San Francisco before I moved to Maryland. And of course I enjoy hiking, drawing, and of course reading the latest best seller.
Julie: Sounds interesting, Annie?
Annie: Hi I am Annie Etches I am from London in England. I have been here now from 40 years. My husband and I came with say four children, but three really; one had to go back to England. We have lived in this Montgomery County area for almost 40 years and he was always interested in library work of all sorts. We both did volunteer work all our adult lives anyway and there seems to be so much interest in the libraries in this county that we both got, you know, involved. And so he died a couple of years ago, he used to do the Tuesday morning class and then I was asked if I would like to step in and do it. And I was very nervous at first because we both, all our lives had our own interests and I somehow felt I didn’t want to sort of step on to his shoes, but I did and I just love it. It’s, my Tuesdays morning are absolutely fantastic, so I am so happy about that.
Julie: We thank you for all that wonderful work and thanks to your husband too who led the way.
Annie: Yeah he was great.
Julie: So why don’t we just go in and tell out listeners exactly what English Conversation Clubs are and are they in fact classes?
Nancy: Well for many English speakers or English learners I think the hardest part is speaking, I think that’s the most difficult part of learning a new language. And so at our Conversation Clubs you know, our facilitators make them very comfortable, make them relaxed and they ask the right questions, so get them you know, talking and speaking, also it helps them with listening to the language as well. And we depend on our facilitators to help our English learner to develop the speaking skills and I think they do a great job.
Annie: Yes I think you’re absolutely right; they have told me quite often actually that they like listening to us talking to them as much as they like talking to us which is very good and it’s very interesting, because for me they are hearing English, English. And they often bring that up and laugh about it that you know, because they are the facilitator that sits on my table and of course she is an American English and therefore it can sometimes be different. But we get past that usually with laughing and joking about something and they tease me quite a lot about my English, and but that that’s fine. Certainly, I think for them learning to speak is more important than learning to read and write and learning the grammar. Not that grammar doesn’t come into it of course as you, you know, because we do a lot of reading, reading and it does, but it is not the focus. And sometimes we get people who that’s what they want the focus to be is on the grammar and sometimes that’s because of the job they are doing here and they need that more in their job. So then we can always direct them to Montgomery College and they often go there for English grammar classes as well, so that’s quite good. But yeah I think they love it, I know they love our class and I do appreciate that every class during the week has a different approach to how they run the things and so maybe mine is a little you know, I don’t know --.
Nancy: Yes, yeah being the coordinator I do see the difference, your Tuesday morning you guys have a lesson plan?
Nancy: They have three tables and each table has a volunteer that helps about five to eight people and they have a lesson plan where everyone talks about the same topic. And then Thursday Conversation Club each of the volunteer have their own topic that they want to talk about. So they decide what topic that they want to talk about. In the Saturday Conversation Club, it’s just whatever the participants want to talk about, if they want to talk about politics, you know, something is happening, they would talk about that or food or anything that was happening in current events. It’s like, it’s the mix and there is no organization to their talk. And I think they like it that way participants in a Saturday one, they just like this very loose format and then the Tuesday evening I think there is only one volunteer, oh actually I am sorry there is two volunteers and I think they just bring up a topic and then they discuss it.
Julie: Now would you say the same participants go to the Tuesday, the Thursday, and the Saturday classes?
Annie: Occasionally, but also I know one or two of my – say students, they also go to Germantown Library, they sometimes go to Gaithersburg Library. I think that because some of them walk a long way, some of them come on two buses Tuesday morning, they don’t want to drive a car and come like that. And sometimes they go to another library because I don’t know maybe something was advertised or may be their kids have gone there for some reason or something. So but I do know I think next week when they are closed Tuesday morning a couple of them did say to me, “Can I go to one of the other classes,” and I said, “Of course you can anytime you want,” so yeah.
Julie: So I guess depending on what they are looking for and what is convenient at that time?
Annie: Yes at that time, yes, yes, yes. And in fact let’s just say, we start, of the three tables okay in our group. My table and I have tried to encourage the other two they don’t do it quite so much, but we begin with making sure everybody knows who everybody is at the table because we have had some new people in the last couple of weeks and that has been quite fun. So everybody says who they are. And then I ask them, “Well how was your week, what did you do, anything special?” So we start with just talking about anything and everything. And sometimes we don’t even get to the paper work because that goes off at so many tangents as to, you know, sometimes they have a problem they want to talk about. And because I am also an immigrant, I can align with a lot of what they are going through in their first years here and some are only here for a few years anyway.
And so we start with the talking and then we go to the paperwork and as we get, nobody has to read if they don’t want to; I always say that if you don’t feel confident with your reading that’s fine just listen you know, but everybody likes to read. And I try to correct their pronunciation as much as my English allows, but I try not to over do that because I don’t want them to be thinking every second word they say I am going tell them how to say it better. So we ease up on that as we go along. Everybody else underlines words or phrases that they don’t understand so at the end of every paragraph we will say, “We go back,” and then people will say, “I didn’t understand that, what did that mean.” So then we go over that. Sometimes that takes us off onto a completely different tangent of what we are discussing, but that is okay too. And usually we sort of finish up with everybody saying, “Oh, oh is it over, we got to go now.” And I say, “Yes sorry I do have to.” So it is a big mix of the paperwork and just general talking and things like that. I mean somebody got caught going through a red light and --.
Julie: That’s something to talk about.
Annie: Yeah, the police car was sitting right there, picked him up and he had a really hard time, you know, and that often happens I know that. So things like that so I was able to tell him what he needed to do and yes he did need to go the court and all the rest of it. So there are things like that we can help with.
Julie: Now how do people get started with a Conversation Club also do they have to register for these classes and where can they find a Conversation Club and how often do they meet?
Nancy: Well the Conversation Clubs are open to all adult, it’s a drop-in meet up, you don’t have to register and you can attend as many classes as you want here at Quince Orchard, we have four and they are welcome to attend all four if they have time.
Julie: And there are also others at other branches?
Nancy: Yes and all the other branches also have Conversation Clubs as well that they can attend.
Julie: Now this question is for you Annie, why did you decide to become a volunteer coordinator for Quince Orchard?
Annie: It was my nearest library.
Julie: That’s convenient.
Annie: But no, I mean that’s, we live close by and that’s where my husband got involved with things, I, well both of us got involved with the Saturday monthly book sale, so we were busy with that. I was on the library board for a short while, I don’t know there just seemed to be lots of things there and we would always encourage our kids and grand kids in that to be involved in the library if possible. I think it’s a great place especially for the teenagers to be able to go to from the high school over there in the afternoons and you know, be over there, I think it’s a good place.
I love the idea that every Tuesday morning I have people from all around the world who are sitting there enjoying each others’ company even if they don’t always understand quite what’s being said you know. And one day we had a I think there were about 12 people at my table, this is going back to when we were at the church hall during the time we were closed. And a guy from Iran, we had all been laughing and joking about I don’t know what now may be food or something and just before we finished he just said, “Everybody I think it’s so wonderful that we can sit here; we are all different, different countries, different religions, different ideas and yet we all get along and we love meeting together.” And that to me summed up what I want life to be about and it was just great.
Julie: Wow so you know, you get the privilege to travel around the world in one room.
Annie: Yes, yes, absolutely, yes absolutely
Julie: Now I know earlier Nancy mentioned that the classes are for adults and you also mentioned it is a good form for teens to come to, what about kids, can kids attend these classes as well?
Annie: Yes in the last few years we have had two babies born, not there, I mean you know. And the mothers don’t come every week it depends on what’s going on, you know. And we have a young woman from Russia it’s her first baby and she is very conscious that the baby might make a noise or anything so she comes occasionally when she is pretty sure that he is going to sleep the next hour anyway, you know, but no we just love that. In the last few months, I have had two teenagers who have been visiting this country to be with their father or their mother or whatever. And so they have come with them and their English has been you know, good anyway, but no I think that that is fine and the two little babies we have had have been absolutely fine, no problem at all.
Julie: No conversation from them?
Annie: No conversation, no, no.
Nancy: Yeah as long as children are with their parents, I think we are fine with it but we don’t encourage children coming in by themselves because the conversation would be you know, adult you know, subject matter so yeah --.
Julie: Now who would you recommend to participate in these Conversation Clubs?
Annie: Well I would say anybody who is going to live here for more than five or six weeks may be. There have been occasions and the last time this couple came from Italy they came, because they came to see Richard but it was too late of course and they haven’t been back since. But I know they used to come once a year they came to visit their daughter who lived locally and they spent two months with her and they came as did a another older couple some while ago because they want to improve their English so that they communicate with their grandchildren because they were finding that you know, their grandchildren just spoke English and they just would not, with it the whole time, they just couldn’t and they wanted the communication to be better so as they came every and so they came.
Julie: Was that helpful?
Annie: They said it was very helpful; they loved it so you know.
Nancy: Yeah there was one woman who was going to have a job interview and she told me that she attended the Conversation Club so she could improve her English for the job interview. And she said the Conversation Club helped her to be more relaxed and feel more confident in her speaking skills and it helped her with her job interview. So she mentioned that and I thought that’s good yeah.
Julie: Those are great feedback.
Julie: Is there a lot of turnover among participants or do the same people come over a long period of time?
Annie: Both I have got at the moment on a Tuesday; I would say there are at least half the people have been coming for a long time. In fact I have two at my table who have been coming for years whereas I have another two people at the table it was his second week this week, he is going to be one more year in this country, so he is going to keep coming he says all that year. The other person I think she will be only here may be for another few months. So it is you know, and some people you see like particularly the Chinese people because of their culture, they go back to their own country usually to take care of parents for three, four, five, six months of the year and then they come back again. So I have several of those that are there for a few months and then gone and then they come back again. It’s a mix; it’s a good mix I think.
Julie: So for those who have been coming for a long time and not the ones who go for three months and come back, is it that they are enjoying the conversations or is there a particular upper level and at some point do you say well this has really helped me?
Nancy: I think for some of them it’s a great social outlet for them you know, I think a lot of them feel a little isolated because of the language barrier. And so when they go to the Conversation Club they get this support. And our facilitators you know, they would help them kind of maneuver around the neighborhood and tell them where all the resources are. I think it is a good place for them to connect with the community.
Annie: And with people from their country too. There is always a brightness about them when they know someone else at the table is from their country. And sometimes I have to, when they talk to each other and I have to say English, English only and we all laugh about that later.
Julie: Oh okay, that is very funny.
Annie: Yes, no it definitely is a social place for them and you will hear them say something that they saw each other in Giant or the nursery or something you know. And they were able to meet somebody that they could talk to in their own language probably, but nevertheless it was somebody that they recognized it was a neighbor and I think that is good for them too so.
Nancy: I think that’s great.
Julie: So while we are on the topic of them like participants knowing each other, do either of you know your participants well?
Annie: Several I do know, yes definitely, because when we are having, its amazing how much some of them will open up about what has just happened at home a sadness or may be a very happy thing and want to share it. I now have a lady who is just a little bit older than me and she is into gardening and she has a big green house so do I so you know. So we have a lot in common and she brought in the most amazing tomatoes and cucumbers last week and everybody thought this was amazing. And now she has done this many years running, so I wasn’t surprised, but of course other people were just like, “Wow.” So on Tuesday this other lady she brings in this big bag of chocolate and spreads it over the table for everybody to have you know, and everybody is just like, “Oh it is so nice.”
Julie: That’s great like a community, yeah.
Annie: Yes, I feel I do.
Nancy: I am green with envy.
Annie: You have to come visit us.
Nancy: Now I do.
Julie: So what would you say are the benefits of the Conversation Clubs?
Annie: I know how I came when I first came to this country and it took me three years before I really felt that this was home. It takes a long while, it doesn’t happen quickly or easily and I think for these people it gives them some sort of backup or some feeling that there are other people out there that I could talk to. You know, Americans are incredibly friendly, generous people, I mean they just are which is wonderful. And these people they recognize that very, very quickly. As we often talk about this and how it’s different in their culture in this way and that way. So they are very aware of that and they just think that is wonderful that they are accepted.
And I think one of the things is for them is to be accepted although they don’t speak good English and they may be misunderstood. And it’s just the simple daily things of life when you go to a store. A lot of them are very, very nervous about traveling on a bus, going into a restaurant and that’s something Richard used to do. He always had money to show everybody what you know, the money or the coins were and the things and that and he would take in menus and things so that people could see what food was in a certain menu and things. And sometimes we used to take people out to eat or something so that they could order something and feel confident that they could do that, because they feel very nervous in those situations. So I think it’s just the daily life things that we can encourage them and I think they feel more comfortable with living.
Nancy: And the libraries you know, it’s a perfect place to have these conversations clubs, because we have you know, we know have the, we know where the resources are. We can direct them to where they are and they feel relaxed coming up to us and asking us you know, information about personal things like you know, job hunting or like you know, the bus route you know, which bus to catch. And we are patient enough to you know, walk them through you know, where to catch the bus, child care services you know, some of them may not know about that, the best place you know, like banking.
Annie: Banking is a big thing, insurance is another big that they don’t understand and they want to know about and where they can go and find out things yes.
Nancy: And services like you know, who is a good roofer or lawn service, you know, so being in the library, we have all those information for them, yeah.
Annie: And also they, I don’t know whether they would actually say this but this is the feeling I get from them, they feel they are in a safe place.
Julie: At the library?
Annie: At the library.
Julie: And no one is going to swindle them.
Annie: No, no, absolutely. And they, you know, it is a government building okay, I am considering where some of these people come from that would be a scary thing in their countries to be trustworthy in a government building and yet you just sense it when they come in, that there is a relaxation, they feel safe and that’s very good.
Julie: Now as a coordinator Nancy, can you tell us what participants have told you about Conversation Clubs that have actually enhanced their lives?
Nancy: Well earlier yeah I only have one story; it is about the lady who was going to go for her job interview. And she was very appreciative that the Conversation Club helped her to relax and develop some speaking skills and feel confident in speaking English you know, during the job interview.
Annie: At the moment I have one person who is going for their citizenship and so I have been there and done that, so I can be you know, I can listen, I know what their worries are and what their concerns are, help them with questions and things. Green cards, yes same thing, a couple of people going for their green cards and so they you know, so I can help in that way, because they don’t know who else to turn to for those things.
Nancy: Exactly, right.
Annie: And one of the things I have found which amazed me at first time, I am used it now, but most of these people have got children in school. All the children speak perfect English or as perfect just as it is these days and yet will they speak English at home with their mother or their father, no. And everybody tells me the same thing that oh they can’t be bothered, we are too slow, they don’t want to do it. And I say look you know, for one hour every evening at the dinner table wherever say I need your help to your kids. I have been telling you what to do all these years now I need you to help me, tell me how to say these words, just for an hour at dinner or something, you know, speak English it will help you so much, but they always come back and say no they say I am not you know. There was one lady I remember she was with Richard before me but thirteen years, she had been in this country, her kids had gone through school okay her English was almost non-existent because she said no English is ever spoken with her apart from when she came to the class.
Julie: Wow that’s amazing.
Annie: And I was astounded at that.
Julie: So did she come to that class for thirteen years?
Annie: I don’t know that, no I don’t know that, but she had come for many years certainly. But and it was almost as if she wasn’t improving in her English and I think that was partly because I mean I don’t know her home situation but may be speaking English was not allowed perhaps who knows I don’t know, but I was surprised that the children will not be more involved with helping their parents speak English.
Julie: So having these Conversation Clubs actually are vital?
Annie: I think so, I think so, yes.
Julie: Nancy this question is for you, what would you say are Montgomery County Public Library systems top English has a second language resources and services that we provide to our customers?
Nancy: Oh Montgomery County has a lot of resources, we have this whole collection of literacy resources that anyone that wants to learn English can borrow and some of these include audio books and DVDs. And a lot of the audio books have instructions in their mother tongue like English for Spanish speakers, English for Farsi speakers or Chinese speakers, so they can understand the English by listening to the instruction in their own language. And we also have lots of books that talk about you know, English grammar, word usage; we have lots of dictionaries, books on American idioms. And of course we also have lots of resources in the community like Montgomery College has a lot of English courses that they can take and most of them are free if it is for beginners, they also offer classes for advance learners, but there is a little fee for advance courses. And of course the Literacy Council has a lot of classes as well as tutors that can meet with English learners one-on-one and MCAEL which stands for the Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy also puts out a directory of providers that provide English instruction throughout the community throughout Montgomery County. And you can get this brochure at the library or you can just go to their website. And Charles Gilchrist Immigrant Resource Center also have lots of classes, they are located at Gaithersburg Library, in Germantown, also in Silver Spring and they have the courses listed on their website. And if they come to library we can print out the flyers for them. And Montgomery County College also has the Workforce Development & Continuing Education and they also can take English classes as well as there.
Julie: So they have a wider ray of resources.
Nancy: Yes there is a lot.
Julie: Now do we have Conversation Clubs for other languages and if we do what are there?
Nancy: Yes we also have Spanish Conversation Club at Quince Orchard, they meet Monday nights every Monday at 6 o’clock. And the same facilitator also runs a Thursday night at Rockville. And there is also a French Conversation Club in Germantown that meets at 6:30 every Tuesday night. And Gaithersburg Library has an advanced level English class on idioms it’s called Easy Does It American Idioms.
Julie: Now what have you learned from your experiences with the Conversation Clubs and this is to both of you?
Annie: I think so many things but I think just overall what that man said that day about us all sitting around that table and you know, just being one laughing together. I think about that when today that seems to be so much downside to our life, sadness to our world and I think about that that comes back to me all the time and it gives me more hope that we are going to get through bad times and we can really do this, we can really do this together, because we are all human beings and we all need each other and we can all give something to each other, it doesn’t matter what it is, but we can all share something and make this world a better place and I just feel that that we do that on Tuesdays.
Julie: Yeah it seems as though we are more similar than we are different.
Annie: Absolutely, absolutely without question.
Nancy: We share a lot of common values.
Annie: Yes, absolutely.
Nancy: Friendship, caring for family, education I think and no mater where you are from, we share these values.
Annie: Yes we do.
Julie: Well we are talking about wonderful stuff. Do you have any fun or interesting stories to share from a Conversation Club meeting?
Annie: Well we do laugh a lot that is for sure about all sorts of things. This last Tuesday a guy, he doesn’t sit at my table he said, “Bobby,” he called me over to that table. And he said, “Come, come see this” and he had his phone out and he is just well – we were teasing him because he has only just told us, but he has a first grand child and he was so excited about it. But the baby is already five months old and he hasn’t told us before. So we were really going, “What you think you are doing you know, we need to know this,” you know. And so again everybody is laughing and the photograph get handed around and everybody was so thrilled for him and things so, you know, it’s just nice, it is good sharing, it is so good.
Julie: Right more than just conversation.
Annie: Yes, oh definitely, definitely, but at the same time, I guess what I have done in the past in the court and that, I am very aware that there is a line that I do not cross in giving advice or you know, some things I wouldn’t say to somebody even if I thought I knew the answer or knew where I should guide them. But there is a line that I shouldn’t get totally involved with issues.
Julie: Right, but you could stir them in the right direction.
Annie: Absolutely yes.
Julie: Now to the really fun stuff, it is customary on this program that we ask our guests what they are currently reading, who would like to go first?
Annie: My brother is an author and I just received last week, the last thing he had written which won him a prize in England. And it’s a short story it is the most amazing piece of writing that I think I have ever read in my life. I just couldn’t believe and it was just so absolutely beautiful and my brother had written it with just outstanding so, yes so.
Nancy: That’s great.
Annie: The name of the story is Unforgettable and his name is David Wiseman but I don’t know the prize.
Julie: We will be sure to mention the name of the prize in the show notes. Over to you Nancy.
Nancy: Okay, personally I am reading a mystery by Martha Grimes title Vertigo 42. So it is a story about a friend of a friend who is convinced his wife was murdered 17 years ago and not by an accidental fall off the tower called Vertigo 42. So it was gripping, I have enjoyed it a lot.
Julie: Thank you so much for letting us in into the world of English Conversation Clubs, I want to thank Nancy and Annie for being with us today. Let’s keep the conversation going by following us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on the Apple Podcast app Stitcher or wherever you get your Podcast. Also please review and rate us on Apple Podcast, we will love to know what you think. Thank you once again for listening to our conversations today, see you next time.