I made friends with a woman at church several years ago, the one you do, based on compatible children. We were miserably pregnant at the same time too, so our bond was sealed for life. She happens to be smart and funny and sardonic which helped too. Oh, and she's Japanese which is slightly less rare than finding a blue lobster in our community.
Through my friend I met a few other Japanese women, and when she moved away I got to know one lady in particular quite well. Eventually, through my Yakuza-like insider connections to the hub of the Japanese diaspora on the US-Mexico border, I met Rina.
Rina is my conversation partner. We meet each week for an hour to talk. (I suspect my husband might be paying her to try to use up my word allotment each day.) Rina wants to practice her English and noticed, through various social encounters, that I speak clearly. I have so few talents that I appreciate such a compliment and immediately liked her.
We chat about things that have come up in Rina's conversations with her circle of non-Asian mom friends. After an ER visit, we worked on corporeal vocabulary a bit. Last week, ahead of Arizona primary elections, I explained a bit about elected offices and the different levels of government in our state.
Rina is in the United States for five years for her husband's job. It isn't permanent, which for some people means they don't bother learning much English. I'm impressed with how Rina works to get out of the house and is willing to be uncomfortable in a new country. She's very accomplished and it must be hard to communicate at a significantly lower level than you are used to. Even asking for conversation practice, in addition to signing up for ESL practices, takes courage. Rina is a delight and I laugh when she tries to pay me since I so thoroughly enjoy our time together.
I've taught developmental (read: remedial) college level English for over a decade. I've had so many students working hard to learn and perfect a second language. But if you are self-conscious about your speaking ability, it can be hard to find situations to practice. Finding a native speaker willing to hang out and chat can be difficult.
BYU-Idaho has a program as part of it's Pathway road to college deal, called Speaking Partners. Wherever you are, you can pair with a student learning English. You don't have to quit your day job or even your pick-up basketball games: the commitment is just thirty minutes a week. You don't have to teach grammar or explain the Constitution. You just provide an opportunity for authentic language practice. As far as easy, helpful projects go, not many things can beat this.
I know some folks—my parents and my in-laws—who participate in Speaking Partners. I don't know much else about it. Reaching out to someone in your life would be even better of course, but not all of us may have such opportunities. I guess this is my plug for noticing language learners around you and going out of your way to help without being weird and condescending. If that's outside your comfort zone, try out the Speaking Partners program and give yourself an opportunity to serve and expand your horizons.
Eliana Osborn was raised on cold weather and wild animals in Anchorage, Alaska, setting the stage for her adult life in the Sunniest Place on Earth in Arizona. She grew up in the church and didn't know there were places where conformity was preached. She has degrees. She writes. She teaches. She has some kids. She even has a husband. She's trying to do her best.
Image credit: Chris Blakeley (used with permission).