Assisting non-native speakers
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 14, 2005

Cary Aspinwall

Students practice in real-life setting

The typical student attending the Southeast Regional Library's English as a Second Language conversation group can read and write the language fairly well.

But speaking it is another hurdle altogether, and one that can stump a newcomer's adjustment to life in the Valley.

Learning everyday English well enough to go the grocery store or use the phone book can be especially challenging.

The library's conversation group aims to make the transition easier for East Valley newcomers from foreign countries. About 6 percent of Gilbert's population is foreign-born, according to town statistics. The largest percentage of Gilbert's immigrant population comes from Latin America.

The 12-week program, which starts this week, is free and requires no registration. Any interested participant may attend the Saturday morning sessions.

The conversation group provides a different experience from instructional classes or one-on-one tutoring.

Developing conversational skills often is the hardest part of learning a new language, so most of the classes focus on vocabulary building and practicing casual conversation, program coordinator Terry Doepken said.

Practical skills for daily living in the United States and Arizona, such as phone etiquette and using the phone book to find resources, are emphasized.

"A lot of it is answering those 'why do Americans do it this way?' type questions," Doepken said. "And often it leads to great cultural discussions."

The program was started by literacy volunteers who noticed that their ESL students needed practice in using the English they were learning because many would speak only their native language at home.

But many of Doepken's students from the program have moved on with great success in their lives in the United States - and often, friendships made among her students become lasting.

"There's a lot of beyond-the-class connections," she said.