Published November 17, 2009
Volume 17, Number 11

Library Tutors Give Non-English Speakers an Invaluable Opportunity to Practice New Language

The secret to just about any kind of performance is practice, practice, practice. That applies as much to machinists as it does musicians, and it is certainly true for those learning another language as well.

To boost the skills of non-native English speakers, the Pleasanton Public Library has been offering free English conversation classes for the past several years. Three different groups get together once a week with a volunteer tutor for an hour to 90 minutes of discussion and dialogue at the library at 400 Old Bernal Ave. The participants represent a United Nations-like panoply of countries of origin, according to Janice Bauman, the library’s literacy coordinator. “It’s a very diverse group of nationalities--Korean, Chinese, Hispanic, and people from India, Russia, Poland, Armenia, and Colombia,” Bauman says.

The tutors also have different backgrounds, a fact reflected in the way the individual sessions are conducted. The evening class, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, reads a newspaper written especially for non-native English speakers, and then discusses its content and does the crossword puzzle. The Wednesday group, which meets at lunchtime, is more freeform, with participants talking about random subjects like holidays and customs. The third class, held mid-morning on Thursdays, is led by a former ESL (English as a second language) teacher who has worked in China and elsewhere, and is more structured. 

The classes all operate on a drop-in basis. “Students don’t have to register,” Bauman says. “They can skip around or go to all three classes, that’s not a problem.” Average attendance is about 10 per class. Many are mothers trying to adapt to a new culture. “They really do want to learn the language, to help their children through the school system, to talk to doctors and other people outside the home. They want American friends, and the classes help them get to know other people in the community. It’s like social outreach, which is really what language is all about.”  

The conversation classes are part of a larger literacy track offered by the library. Many students are waiting to be assigned to a volunteer tutor for one-on-one study as well. “We encourage participants in the conversation groups to attend adult school classes in English, and then we try to get them individual tutors,” Bauman relates, adding that the volunteer tutors are in high demand. All go through library-provided literacy training and agree to make a weekly hour-and-a-half commitment to a single student for a year. There is some preparation time involved, she says, “but we have all the resources here--CDs, DVDs, grammar books, dictionaries, anything a student would need.”

Bauman would love to add a conversation class or two but faces space limitations at the library. If another location became available, for example at Hacienda, she would welcome the opportunity. The next training class for volunteer tutors is scheduled for January. For more information on the program, contact Bauman at (925) 931-3411 or email jbauman@ci.pleasanton.ca.us.


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