Honing English Skills is on the Menu at Rutgers’ ‘Conversation Café’

Honing English Skills is on the Menu at Rutgers’ ‘Conversation Café’

Program reaches out to community members as they become bilingual
Honing English Skills is on the Menu at Rutgers’ ‘Conversation Café’

Credit: Jessica Hundsdon
Alicia Figueroa, left, practices English with Rutgers student Francesca Venezia at the Conversation Café.

On a recent evening in a small room on George Street in New Brunswick dubbed the Conversation Café, Manuel and Giovanna Hernández listened intently as Mel Bandler, a Rutgers sophomore from Montclair, explained how to politely decline a dinner invitation.

A bit later at this café inside the building housing Youth Empowerment Services (YES), Bandler found herself trying to describe what the idiom “a blessing in disguise” means.

For those whose first language is English, such nuances are second nature. For the Hernándezes, a Perth Amboy couple who emigrated from Peru -- Manuel seven years ago, Giovanna seven months ago -- and other area residents, acquiring English as a second language is a daily challenge.

Now a new Rutgers program titled Students Advancing Literacy Skills in Adults (SALSA) is seeking to ease such hardships. The program pairs university students serving as conversation partners with community members striving to enhance their English language skills.

SALSA students are Rutgers undergraduates from a variety of disciplines enrolled in a new course called “Community-Based English Language Education.” The course, offered through the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Language Education program, includes 30 hours of community service, or about three hours a week. 

“SALSA is a partnership in every sense of the word," says Mary Curran, associate dean for local-global partnerships at GSE.  The program is co-directed by GSE’s Language Education program and The Collaborative, a Rutgers center that contributes to the local community through research and social action, headed by Maurice Elias, academic director and professor of psychology.

SALSA was designed in response to community needs voiced by The Collaborative's community partners.

"It is filling a vital need for English conversation practice and at the same time is bridging the gap for students between the university and the community,” Curran says. “Students have an opportunity to put their coursework into practical use and are learning firsthand about the local immigrant population, bilingualism and the process of second language acquisition.”

Partnerships are nurtured through conversations and writing exercises that include poetic imagery. Discussions not only foster knowledge about socially appropriate language use, vocabulary and idioms, but also provide a cultural exchange of words and ideas.

Such conversations have been taking place since early October several evenings a week in New Brunswick at YES, LAZOS America Unida, the New Brunswick Free Public Library and Jewish Family & Vocational Service at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, as well as at sites in Plainfield and Perth Amboy.

Though the students have diverse backgrounds (many are bilingual, some trilingual) and varied career aspirations, all are committed to civic engagement, says Jessie Curtis, part-time lecturer and course instructor.

Curtis, who also attends the sessions throughout the community, instructs the student facilitators in conversational techniques. “The course is collaborative in nature and focuses on the socio-cultural approach to teaching language,” she says. “People learn through participation. However, for immigrants, opportunities for spontaneous conversation in English are hard to find. This program provides a safe place to practice.”

Community participants represent a broad demographic, from stay-at-home moms to factory workers to


Course instructor Jessie Curtis, foreground, left, with SALSA participants Bentodina Jimenez and Armando Mora.

professionals.  Some are recent immigrants; others are long-time residents. They learn about the program through word of mouth, community organizations, and flyers in churches and businesses.

Manuel Hernández, 44, who earned a degree in civil engineering in Peru, shared his ongoing frustration about not having enough opportunity to practice his English. “My job is in a warehouse; most people speak Spanish,” he says. His wife, Giovanna, 32, who held a position as a public accountant in Peru, also works in an environment where people converse only in Spanish.

“This (English) practice is helping me,” says Manuel, who cannot work in his field because licensure does not transfer. “Little by little, I feel I can speak.” He said the sessions have given him confidence.

Francesca Venezia, a Rutgers senior from Midland Park majoring in linguistics and cognitive science, grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. She was attracted to the class because she wants to work in bilingual education. 

“Community members frequently ask for more sessions or for audio tapes so they can practice on their own. They are very motivated and dedicated to practicing their English language skills,” Venezia says. “They commit to coming here week after week. I have seen people who lacked confidence in the beginning, but have become more willing to participate.”

Bandler, who is studying public health, French and Russian, says she is not taking the course for credit, but is serving with the program as a Rutgers Bonner Leader (another initiative of the Collaborative) for personal growth and to assist others.  “It’s been very rewarding to help others acquire a skill that I take for granted,” she says. “There are limited opportunities for community members to practice English. Providing them with a willing conversation partner is really worthwhile.”

Remedios Garcia, 43, emigrated from Mexico to North Brunswick 21 years ago and has recently been participating in SALSA sessions. Her four daughters, ages 6 to 22, were born in the United States and are bilingual. And although Garcia has lived here nearly half her life, stepping out of her comfort zone to speak English remains daunting, she says.

“I need to practice. I wish I could do this every day,” she says.Those interested in participating in the spring SALSA program or in receiving more information can email jessica.hunsdon@rutgers.edu.