On a recent Wednesday evening, Adele Cannell, was speaking English to six adults who don’t speak it very well. To encourage them to reply in kind, the veteran facilitator with Literacy Volunteers of West Cook County’s Conversation Café uses a white dry-erase board as she tosses out verbal prompts:
“I am so happy I can read the Chinese menu,” she says to the small group of ESL (English as a second language) learners.
Surprisingly, the first student to venture a response is a reserved Chinese woman. Usually she doesn’t speak out and often depends on her more fluent Chinese husband for coaching, confidence, and communication. This time she doesn’t hesitate.”Very good, Anna, that’s great,” says Cannell, using her student’s English name in a format where only English is spoken.
Prior to the start of this group dialogue, Cannell had asked Anna’s husband to let his wife fly solo … and, with confidence, she does.
“Another way you could say that, Anna, would be, ‘The last time I went to a restaurant, I was so surprised because the menu was in Chinese and I could read it.'”
In an Asian accent and with aplomb, Anna echoes, “I am so surprised because the menu is Chinese. I can read!”
In this small room in a library full of books, her peers let out a cheer. Anna blushes, looking pleased.
“I really get a lot out of seeing that kind of improvement in people,” says Cannell, who underwent her training as an ESL facilitator in 2010. “Anna was much more animated, and she spoke more than she ever has here. Normally, overall, she has looked more stressed. But this time, speaking English seemed a bit easier for her.”
In 1986, Literacy Volunteers of West Cook County (LVWCC) debuted in an effort to meet the literacy needs of people who cannot read or write English well enough to participate fully in society, says Esther Chase, an LVWCC board member. The nonprofit, she says, was formed to provide free one-on-one tutoring services and literacy programming to adults through a network of trained adult volunteers.
Tutoring sessions take place in the community, at a local library, or in the offices at 815 N. Marion St. in Oak Park. Conversation Café is a group that meets weekly to casually practice basic conversation skills that are necessary for participating in everyday life.
Both opportunities, Chase adds, are free.
“At Conversation Café they might talk about shopping, how to fill out government forms to apply for assistance, or simple things such as what’s happening at the Olympics or current events. But generally it is just an open dialogue,” she says.
Locally, the café gathers on Mondays (at the Forest Park Library) or Wednesdays and Saturdays (at the LVWCC office).
“I’ve worked with people of many backgrounds from many different countries,” Cannell says. There is a physician from Libya who is currently working in a free clinic, so Conversation Café has been very good for him because now when people talk in slang, use idioms, or have a dialect, he has raised his comfort with day-to-day English.”
A recent boon for the program has been its central location.
“We know we are helping people when they come back and say, ‘You know, when I started coming here, I couldn’t fill out a job application, and now I can, and now I have a job’,” says Yolanda Walton Williams, another member of LVWCC Board of Directors. “People who don’t speak English can come here, and our volunteers will help them learn it.”