“Often, the English conversation groups are the entryway to English and to literacy. Many people come to us with little to no formal education and the need for basic communication skills is essential for living, economic, and health issues. The conversation groups provide a welcoming entrance to American life, our community and literacy.” – Nina Uzick, volunteer leader
One of MCPL’s most popular and longest-running programs is our English Conversation Club. Since starting over 30 years ago, MCPL has reached thousands of new English learners at branches across the county. Run by dedicated volunteers, the clubs offer a friendly and supportive setting where customers can practice their English in a judgement-free zone. Not surprisingly, some members who once were strangers form bonds and become friends, even staying in touch after moving on to new opportunities.
Take Olney Library— when the new building opened in 2014, the branch started two English Conversation groups; both continue to be well attended. Mary Allman, the indefatigable volunteer leader for Olney’s Monday evening club (along with Jerry Hurley), has noted the numbers who’ve passed through during the past 5 years. Based on her latest update, this group has welcomed more than 280 people from 64 countries! And they come from every corner of the globe: Burkina Faso and Congo in Africa; Cambodia and Myanmar in Asia; Bulgaria and Estonia in Europe; Nicaragua and Paraguay in Latin America; and Egypt and Lebanon in the Middle East… just to name a few.
We’re impressed not only by the diversity of the participants, but also their commitment to learning a new language in a foreign land. Says Olney’s other dynamic volunteer, Nina Uzick, who’s the Sunday group leader, “Our members will often travel from different parts of the county just to take part in these Conversation Clubs. They’re very dedicated to learning but also a fun bunch.” Below we introduce to you some Olney Library members, all of whom have become accomplished English speakers and are happy to share a little about themselves.
Name: Nicol: Coquimbo, Chile
Coquimbo is a port city in central Chile known for its long coastal beaches with white sand, and has more than 400,000 residents in the region.
We were thrilled to have Nicol join Olney’s English Conversation group. After completing high school in Coquimbo, she came to the US to study English and stayed with her uncle and aunt living in Montgomery County. Over 5 months, she studied at a local international language institute and participated in our weekly evening conversation group.
At the same time, she volunteered at Olney and helped out with behind-the-scene tasks while also supporting the Spanish Conversation group. And it turned out to be perfect timing: our Spanish facilitator unexpectedly needed to be away for a few weeks so Nicol stepped in to lead the group. It was a ‘win-win’ situation, or en español, todo el mundo gana!
While living in Maryland, Nicol enjoyed visiting DC’s Smithsonian museums, which she said was “really fun, especially the natural history museum.” Since returning to Chlie, she planned to enroll in nursing school. Of course, we
hope to see her again when she returns to the US for a visit. Muchas gracias, Nicol. Hasta luego!
Name: Lioudmila: Cotonou, Benin
Cotonou is this West African nation’s largest city and economic center. Cotonou is situated between Lake Nokoué and the Atlantic Ocean, on the southern coast of Benin.
Lioudmila has lived in the US for 5 years. While growing up in Benin, she completed her schooling and then worked at a local market as a seller. After moving to Maryland with her husband and children, she started working at a hotel.
Lioudmila says what she misses about home is “my family and culture… the culture is very different here. Here you can feel lonely, but at home— with neighbors and friends— everyone is around you.” But she says, “I like the opportunity to work, to make your life better.” When she has time off, she cherishes the time she spends with family and friends. And with “four kids, they keep you very busy!”
Lioudmila truly enjoys the English Conversation Group, saying “It’s so good!” Volunteer leader Mary Allman says of Lioudmila, “She’s a wonderful participant in the group. She speaks French and is always happy to talk about her culture in Benin. She’s also a wonderful mother— she brings her children, who read and do homework at the library, while she participates in the group.”
Name: Bhanthe: Kurunegala, Sri Lanka
Kurunegala was an ancient royal capital of Sri Lanka at the end of the 13th century. The city is surrounded by eight large rock formations; the largest is known as Ethagala, or the ‘Elephant Rock.’
Banthe delights in coming to Olney Library to study English and read books. He says, “I am a monk teaching meditation and spiritualism. A lot of people are very interested in learning about meditation and spirituality.” He’s always very happy to talk to them, and “that’s the reason I’m interested in learning English… to teach about Buddhism.”
He’s been in the US for about 18 months, and this was his second winter here. He’s been enjoying his stay but says it’s “a little bit cold” during the winter months (not surprisingly, as Sri Lanka is a lush, tropical island!). Banthe is involved in volunteer service, and would like to get to know the excellent resources in the area, especially the local parks.
As a monk, his day-to-day life revolves around chanting, reading, meditating and preaching. He’s had the opportunity to travel to six other monasteries in the US, located in California, New Jersey, New York, Florida and Texas. While staying in different regions of the country, he was involved in meditation, meet-up and children’s programs.
Name: Juliana Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
Bogota is located 8,800 miles above sea level, making it one of highest capital cities in the world. It is also known for its arts and culture, wines and cuisine, and has ten million inhabitants.
Juliana likes to attend both English Conversation Groups when she can, so she is beloved by members of both groups! She says, “I would like to improve my English. I like to use the library and read the newspaper here. The Conversation Club is good for me. The leaders are very good and very helpful.”
Juliana grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Bogota, with “classical music and books.” She returns every year to “see family and visit friends.” When she lived there, she “worked in an art gallery that represented painters from Colombia.” Now that she lives in Maryland, “Strathmore is my favorite place.” While fond of DC, Juliana “really likes to go to New York to visit all the museums”— like the Museum of Modern Art and newly-built Whitney Museum.
Juliana is a big reader and also “loves” to watch the latest movies. Her recommendations? She likes history books and biographies, such as Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. For movies, she recommends “The Wife” and “Bohemian Rhapsody“ (both of which are in MCPL’s collection), as well as “Maria by Callas,” a documentary released in late 2018 about opera legend Callas (coming soon to MCPL). Thanks, Juliana!
Name: Durga Hometown: Biratnagar, Nepal
Biratnagar is a large city in eastern Nepal, near the border of India. Mount Everest, part of the Himalaya mountain range and the highest mountain on earth, “straddles the border separating China and Nepal.” The Nepali name for Everest is Sagarmatha, which literally translates to ‘head above the clouds.’
Durga has been living in the US for 6 years. Although her mother, sister and family all live in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, she regularly calls and connects with them. She says, “Everyone is good.” Besides family, what she loves and misses about her culture are the big festivals. She continues her Nepalese traditions by celebrating them here. She’s a very good cook and prepares delicious curry dishes served with rice, along with the family’s favorite— “momo,” or rice dumplings!
Durga says she appreciates living in the US: “the system is good, and everybody is nice.” She lives with her son and his family (who are also regulars at Olney, especially the Lego Construction Crew). According to her son, Durga’s
favorite pastime is “watching horse racing,” so on special occasions he’ll take her to the local tracks. Says Nina Uzick, a volunteer leader, “Rain, snow, nothing keeps her away unless it’s a visit from one of her children!… she has a delightful sense of humor and she not only shares funny things, but understands when others do as well”.
Special thanks to Mary Allman, Nina Uzick, Jerry Hurley, Dan Gorin, Jo Dickinson and Gloria Seelman, Olney’s fantastic volunteers who work tirelessly each week to ensure both Conversation Clubs run smoothly