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Anne Arundel’s English Conversation Club expands horizons of language learners

It started as a simple inquiry from a non-native English speaker to the Anne Arundel County Public Library. An immigrant resident was looking for a comfortable place to practice their English. It has led to regular group meetings that has helped change lives and continues to do so.

“I came up with the idea because one of our customers came and asked if we had a program,” said Judy Salob, Library Associate at Maryland City at Russett Community Library in Laurel. “We just have a conversation in English..”

The Anne Arundel County Public Library’s English Conversation Club is made up of a handful of members who didn’t learn English as their first language. But they longed to practice their new language and wanted a place to use English in a comfortable, non-threatening atmosphere where they could get better at speaking through regular conversation.

Originally Salob said she picked topics for the club as conversation starters. But now the enthusiasm of the group makes starting conversation during a one and a half hour session pretty easy.

“I love the people,” Salob said. “Their enthusiasm is exciting to me. We have great and intense conversations.”

Topics covered during the conversations can span from the everyday to deeper subjects. According to Salob they have included cultural differences, travel, food, weather, education and teaching among others. The point of the club is both self expression and English practice.

Member Olga Balcazar, is a native of Colombia in South America, but moved to Laurel.

“I enjoy this group so much because I feel free to speak another language, English in this case, regardless of being criticized or made fun of for my pronunciation or my mistakes” she wrote in an email. “This makes me enjoy it.”

Along with being able to push past any stigma associated with being a non-native English speaker,, Balcazar said she just appreciates being to express her view on the topics.

“All conversations are interesting because we have the opportunity to give our opinions and show our culture,” she wrote. “We laugh so much and we learn a lot from each other. Having this type of support for us immigrants is very important, because it makes it easier to learn the language.”

Lina Toro is also a member of the group. She is originally from Colombia too, but now lives in Catonsville.

“It think that each conversation we have has been interesting,” she wrote in an email. “We have touched on different topics and been able to see different points of view. A conversation club like this helps you not only to improve the way you pronounce and speak the English language, but it also opens up and expands your knowledge of the experiences of other cultures.”

Although they might be reticent in public, members while in the group are eager to get better with their language skills while in the group.

“The English practice for them (is) something they don’t get a lot of,” Salob said. “One woman has been here 20 years. She really wants to learn. Most people she’s with speak Spanish.”

The members want to be corrected, Salob said, so they know the correct way to say something.

“When they don’t understand a word they’ll look it up,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll revert to Spanish and I’ll have to say ‘English please.’ ”

The club started in person but has gone to meeting through Zoom online. Initially that was because of the pandemic, but members have found they enjoy that method of gathering. It allows for flexibility and defies the limits of geography. One member joins the sessions online from their home in Colombia, South America.

Salob said she hopes the group will grow by a few more people at least. To get it bigger then that would require the help of more native-English speaking facilitators. Right now the conversation club seems to have become a blessing to all involved.

“It’s been very interesting,” Salob said. “They’re usually disappointed when the hour and a half is up.”