The art of conversation

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Photo by ADAM BREEN Carlos Munoz helps members of the Conversation Club with a worksheet at the library.

Club offers practice for English language learners
Their reasons for wanting to learn English are different, but
they are also the same. Laura Soto wants to be able to ask
questions of her children’s doctor; Kayoko Jorgenson wants to help
her children with their schoolwork; Balvina Diaz wants to improve
her confidence.
Club offers practice for English language learners

Their reasons for wanting to learn English are different, but they are also the same. Laura Soto wants to be able to ask questions of her children’s doctor; Kayoko Jorgenson wants to help her children with their schoolwork; Balvina Diaz wants to improve her confidence.

These women, all immigrants and Hollister residents, are part of the year-old Conversation Club at the San Benito County Free Library on Fifth Street. Each Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m., the library’s Family Learning Center coordinator, Carlos Munoz, facilitates a discussion among whomever shows up to the Barbara Memorial Room. While cannery season has taken some regulars away from the sessions, Munoz said between two and 10 people take advantage of the free classes.

Last week, as Munoz greeted the four participants when they settled in at a table in the meeting room, Soto, a native of Aguas Calientes, Mexico, pulled out an electronic English/Spanish translation device and began reviewing that day’s discussion sheet; a handout on “Adverbs with two forms” from UsingEnglish.com.

The worksheet instructed students to read 18 sentence fragments and select the correct adverb to complete the sentence. Question No. 1 began “He works…” with the options being “hardly” or “hard.”

To illustrate the example, Munoz asked Nicolasa Trujillo what her work day had been like. She explained that she spent part of her day cleaning bed sheets at St. Louise Hospital in Gilroy, to which Munoz responded, “She’s always doing one thing after another, so she works hard.”

Soto added that she prepares cuttings at a plant nursery in Gilroy six hours a day, and then comes home to take care of her family. She, too, works hard, Munoz explained, eliciting a collective “aah” from the table.

“Most people who attend speak a little bit of English,” Munoz said. “The main goal is to improve their pronunciation and give them an understanding of the basics. We’re not studying something totally new; we’re just improving on their skills.”

Diaz, who is from Monterrey, Mexico and has lived in the United State for seven years, was participating in the Conversation Club for the first time. Munoz asked her to read question No. 2: “He followed the lecture…closely.”

“I don’t speak English very well,” she said apologetically, as Munoz asked the table, “What does lecture mean?” The group repeated the word “lecture” and said “lectura” in Spanish, which helped them understand its English meaning.

He then asked, “What does closely mean?”

“Does it mean the same as near?” Diaz asked.

“Yes,” Munoz answered, as he brought a sheet of paper close to his face as the students shook their heads in agreement.

“Cerca is close; cercitas is closely,” Munoz added, as another “aah” resonated from the table.

While the worksheet gives the meetings structure, spontaneous discussions in English with a bit of Spanish sprinkled in reveal more about the evening’s students.

“I practice my English one day of the week” at the Conversation Club meetings, said Soto, who has taken courses at Gavilan College and has a thirst for learning. “I need more days. My husband doesn’t speak English and my daughter (age 5) speaks more English than I do. She is learning every day because she is at kindergarten.”

Jorgenson, who came to the United States from Nagasaki, Japan 14 years ago and volunteers at the library, said her reasons for attending the meetings are clear: “I have to learn. I want to know what’s going on with my kids at school. I want to talk with the teacher. I don’t understand what my kids are talking about.”

She said that when she can’t help her children with their homework, arguments ensue.

“I have to study more because I want to understand what my kids are talking about and thinking about,” she said as her tablemates listened intently. “Right now my kids say, ‘I don’t understand mom’s English and Japanese, too.’ It broke my heart. It’s so hard.”

Jorgenson related how her children’s friends have laughed at her accent and that her son had to translate for his mom when he brought a girlfriend home to meet her.

“It was embarrassing to me, but I am getting better,” she said.

Soto was empathetic.

“To learn this language is very hard,” she said. “Sometimes I am very nervous because I want that other people can understand me. I have two years practice but I’d like to go to school every day because if I have enough time I would like to study seven hours every day. But I don’t have enough time.”

Munoz and County Librarian Nora Conte said the library is willing to expand community programs such as the Conversation Club if the interest is there among students and volunteers.

“A library, if it’s going to play a vital role in a community, must be responsive to the needs of a community and tailor a program that is in tune with the needs of that community,” Conte said. “We’re trying to be a vibrant library. Vibrant libraries can change lives, but you must develop a vision that is shared by those of us who are providing library services and those who are receiving them. It’s always a challenge, but it’s always rewarding.”

To that end, the library recently announced that it is partnering with Gavilan College to offer free ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for people with little oral or written English competency. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings from Sept. 30 through Jan. 15, a Gavilan teacher will teach basic English vocabulary skills as well as help familiarize them with life skills such as food, health and occupations.

Back at the Conversation Club table, Diaz told the group that better English skills will translate to higher confidence for her.

“I want for my family to say, ‘Mom, you speak so handsome,'” she said.

Munoz told the group that they all speak very well; “it’s just a matter of practicing. And that’s why we’re here.”

Library services go above and beyond

In addition to the Conversation Club, the San Benito County Free Library offers a literacy program that pairs up English learners with individual, volunteer tutors.

“Presently, we have 30 students and approximately 30 tutors,” said Librarian Nora Conte. “We assign a tutor to a learner then they set goals for themselves as to what they’d like to get out of the program.”

Conte encouraged potential learners and teachers to contact literacy services coordinator Stephanie Lane on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the library, 636-4097.

The library also plans to work with the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office to train volunteers that will in turn provide literacy training for inmates. Conte said a library card campaign this year will target local first-graders as a means of introducing them to the library and a partnership with the Hollister School District offers free use of computers for students who need them for homework assignments.

“Our resources are not always what they should be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start taking baby steps,” Conte said. “Then when times change, we can take the giant steps we need to take.”

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