English Conversation Circles help immigrants build language skills and confidence

English Conversation Circles

Fifteen years ago visitors to the Peabody Institute Library looking for help with their English language skills were directed to a small bookshelf packed with books and some audio tapes. Library staff regularly referred people to the local organizations that offered ESOL classes, but warned that there were long waiting lists.

During this same time period, school and census data indicated that demographic growth in Peabody was a result of new, undeserved immigrant populations settling in the area. This trend was confirmed in 2013 when the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development designated Peabody as a Gateway City, indicating the city’s need for economic development, and educational and employment opportunities. One of the ways that the Peabody Library responded to this need was to commit to a program of English Conversation Circles to support local ESOL classes with the goal of eliminating the language barriers that are a key ingredient to educational opportunity and economic success of Peabody’s growing immigrant population.

Today, the Peabody Library offers English language learners a great deal more.

Each of these free volunteer-led sessions meets weekly in a relaxed setting so that language learners can improve their pronunciation, build vocabulary and perhaps most importantly, gain confidence in their English speaking abilities. The program started with three circles; there are now seven weekly groups meeting for English practice. The concept recently expanded into offering circles for individuals (native English speakers) who wish to practice speaking Spanish and Portuguese.

Over the past four years, we’ve had over 100 language learners participate in Conversation Circles.  Their English speaking abilities ranged from beginner to advanced. Their needs and goals are as diverse as their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some are enrolled in English classes at local community colleges or nonprofits, but want more conversational practice. Others are still patiently waiting for open spots. Some are newly arrived in the United States, some are here for extended visits and some have been here for over twenty years. The ages, backgrounds and countries of origin of the participants vary widely. What connects them all is a desire to better navigate their daily lives at work, at home, in social situations, at their doctor’s office, at the grocery store and at their children’s schools.

The topics of conversation at these circles vary widely, depending on the mix of participants and volunteers in each circle. New arrivals or visitors to the United States often request help with understanding basics such currency or navigating bus schedules. Communicating with doctors and medical office staff is another popular topic. For advanced speakers, comparing cultural practices between home countries and the United States, talking about movies and food and discussing current events offer helpful lessons in both English and American culture. National elections always bring a flood of interest in the American system of government.

An intangible benefit of the Conversation Circles is the social connection that participants can find with other learners and with Circle volunteers. Having limited English skills, a lack of confidence in their ability to express themselves or simply being in a new place leads many of our Circle participants to feel socially isolated. Some friendships remain contained within the circle time and others lead participants to connect outside of class. Either way, spending this time together over multiple weeks often provides English Language Learners with valuable connections. Many circle participants comment on how much more social interaction they are accustomed to in their neighborhoods in their home countries. Friendly encounters and banter with volunteers and other learners can go a long way towards making their new home seem a bit more friendly.

For some new arrivals to the United States, the concept of a public library with free access to materials and services is a fairly unusual one. But once they have been introduced to us, they often discover a wealth of resources at their disposal. Unsurprisingly perhaps, libraries become a favorite destination for these new members of our community. The Institute of Museum and Library Services reports that 55% of new Americans use their public libraries at least once a week. Conversation Circles allow the Peabody Institute Library to offer these new arrivals some conversation, a little bit of extra language knowledge and a valuable chance to connect with others in their new home.