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Free English conversation classes speak volumes at Blacksburg Library

April 4, 2016

Participants in library conversation sessions participate in discussions.

Two participants in library conversation sessions at table
Metin Yikar, left, a TV journalist from Turkey, practices his English at the Blacksburg Library during weekly sessions led by Language and Culture Institute instructors. Also pictured is Maria Cucinotta, who was born in Italy and grew up in Switzerland.

A library is a place to check out books, skim magazines, and search the Internet. At the Blacksburg Library, people who want to speak better English can also practice, talk, and learn.

After hearing requests for increased support for those who speak English as a second language, the Blacksburg Library paired with the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute (LCI) to offer a free series of English conversation sessions. Open to library patrons, community residents, and Virginia Tech students, the free sessions are at 7 p.m. Mondays through the end of April.

Adil Bentahar, one of the rotating group of LCI instructors who lead the sessions, opened one on March 21 by distributing handouts containing questions about immigration. Each weekly session covers a different topic.

“I wanted them to share examples from their own culture and be comfortable talking about their own countries," said Bentahar, a native of Morocco. "I also want them to start thinking about what it takes for people to come here.”

Motivations for attending differ. Metin Yikar, a TV journalist from Turkey, said greater facility in English will make him a more versatile journalist. "I want to practice conversations. I especially want to improve my listening — which can be very hard — and speaking."

Maria Cucinotta, born in Italy and raised in Switzerland, said she enjoys the conversational aspect of the sessions that leads to greater insights into English. “It’s a really rich language if you can get all the many words and many meanings. There’s a poetry to it.”

Adil Bentahar, an instructor at the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute instructor

Adil Bentahar, an instructor from LCI, leads a session.
Adil Bentahar, a Language and Culture Institute instructor, leads a conversation session at the Blacksburg Library.

In the past, the library offered volunteer-driven sessions, turning to the LCI to formalize the program. “We were hopeful to have the support of an established organization as interest grew," said Elizabeth Sensabaugh, the library's supervisor. "When we contacted Virginia Tech, they were so willing and eager to help."

At the March 21 session, participants paired off and asked each other the questions Bentahar prepared, regrouping minutes later to discuss the topic. People from Turkey, Switzerland, Egypt, and South Korea offered their perspectives on immigration.

Bentahar said he doesn't correct every mistake he hears. "Mostly, it’s about building self-confidence in them as English speakers and listeners and about giving them a space where they can practice their English.."

Like all the program's volunteers, Bentahar is an LCI staff member trained to deal with people who are not native English speakers. “I want to promote the spirit of volunteering," he said. "It’s my responsibility to my new community. I want the participants to feel free to speak up here — that’s the whole point."

LCI instructor Donita Moore helped organize the program. She pointed out the value of interactions that take place during the sessions. "This kind of connection fosters important relationships between people and nations that are, and will remain to be, crucial to global understanding, compassion, and cooperation,” she said.

The gatherings serve to promote learning along with building friendships, Moore said.

Anyone who wants to join the sessions can show up at the library, 200 Miller St., at 7 p.m. Mondays.

In addition to the library program, the LCI offers an English Language Program for International Spouses, an InclusiveVT initiative. This program allows spouses of international faculty members, researchers, or students to take LCI classes at a greatly reduced rate.

Samantha Drew of Herndon, Virginia, contributed to this report. She is a junior majoring in literature and language, professional and technical writing, and political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. 

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