By ELENA DURNBAUGH
Every Saturday, a conference room at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library is transformed into a cultural forum, as people from around the world meet to discuss language, customs, and citizenship.
Conversations include topics like talking on the phone and responding to the greeting “What’s happening?”
The English Second Language Conversation Group at the library is designed to help non-native speakers improve their English skills. As Macomb County becomes increasingly diverse, programs like the ESL group help build community.
“One of the things we do in the program is… build confidence,” said Dave Meyer, who organizes the program. “We can get them relaxed and familiar with the program, so they can be more comfortable with their neighbors.”
During his 2018 State of the County address, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the county added 4,000 residents last year. Of those new resident, he said, 72 percent were foreign born. According to the most recent data from the American Community Survey, 15 percent of Macomb County residents speak a language other than English at home.
The library’s ESL group represents that diversity. Attendees speak Polish, Japanese, Cantonese, Portuguese, and Albanian, and their English fluency ranges from beginner to advanced. At meetings, they get to practice speaking English while discussing grammar, cultural norms, and U.S. history.
Mille and Mark Ng have attended the conversation group for almost eight years. They moved to the United States from Hong Kong in 2008 to start a new chapter in life. They were retiring and wanted to have new experiences.
“We already retired in Hong Kong,” Millie Ng said. “Everybody wondered, how come at that age you come to America, and you have to start everything from the beginning? But because of the next generation, we decided to come here.”
The Ngs, who speak Cantonese and Chinese Mandarin, didn’t have much experience with English before moving to the United States. Millie Ng took some English classes growing up, but she remembers the struggle of learning conversational English.
“That is completely different,” she said. “When we came here, I found that, wow, big problem. I can’t hear. I can’t understand. It was just like we were disabled. We were dumb.”
Ng said that not being able to communicate was frustrating. Despite her best efforts, people didn’t understand her, and she couldn’t understand them. She said she felt embarrassed.
“At first, we try to hide ourselves. We will try to hide ourselves to our same native language,” she said.
The Ngs relied on their Chinese community to help them navigate American life, but that wasn’t the experience Millie Ng wanted.
“So, I know I have to make up my mind,” she said. “I have to live. I have to get involved in America. This is life. I have to jump out, to learn.”
When the Ngs heard there was a place to learn English at the library, they started coming to the conversation group. Gradually, they began to learn the language. They also got help preparing for their citizenship test. It was hard, but they said the support and encouragement they received from the group made the process easier.
“I think that’s one of the factors that the participants enjoy– that they can come into our room, speak, and not be concerned with someone criticizing them, someone making fun of them,” Meyer said.
The conversation group is run entirely by volunteers. Meyer first got involved through Macomb Literacy Partners, a non-profit established to support adult literacy programs in Macomb. He has worked with the ESL group for over five years and helped the program transition to the library when Macomb Literacy Partners closed in December 2018.
English and the United States aren’t the only subjects the conversation group talks about. The attendees share their own language and culture with the group.
“We learn so many things,” Millie Ng said. “I like the Chinese group because we are the same language, but I like the conversation group because it allows me to expand my vision.”
The English-speaking volunteers learn a lot, too. Meyer said that, for him, discussing idioms with the attendees is interesting.
“We find out some of these other nationalities have their own idioms that mirror the English idioms,” he said.
Although local school districts provide free classes for adult English language learners, Meyer said the library conversation group provides something different. The informal nature of the meetings allows learners to set their own pace and get individual attention that may not be available in a classroom setting. There are no tests and very little homework.
“It’s the participants that set the agenda for us,” Meyer said. “I feel we can reach more people that way.”
Between six and 12 people attend the group every week, but Meyer said he’d like to see it grow. According to Meyer, the Clinton-Macomb Library plans to present the program to other libraries in the area. Someday, he said he’d like to set up satellite locations for the group.
Millie Ng said she wants to see the program grow, too.
“To Macomb, this is an asset,” she said, “but not many people know there is a place.”
To learn more about the ESL Conversation Group or to ask about volunteering, contact the Clinton-Macomb Public Library at 586-226-5000.