Libraries as a crossroads
Academic communities are often home to a large population of international students and researchers. While many institutions provide robust academic support for this population through their International Studies offices, opportunities for English language learners to practice non-academic conversation are more difficult to come by. Libraries are ideally suited to offer their communities this opportunity.
Public libraries have been successfully providing ESL classes for years. Most academic libraries do not have the time and ESL expertise to create a full ESL course, but they can contribute to their international communities with an informal conversation group. As the research crossroads of campus, libraries have the potential to serve as a communications hub.
English learners in a multi-institution medical center
With the lofty goal of “fostering interdisciplinary research and international communication” in mind, I launched a conversation group at the Texas Medical Center Library a few years ago. Inspired by the conversation group that meets weekly at MD Anderson Cancer Center, I wanted to provide a similar opportunity for our TMC patrons.
Once per week around lunch time, the group met and discussed easy conversation questions for an hour. There were usually 1-2 librarians in attendance to help with language questions and facilitate discussion during lags. Selecting a conversation topic for the week, securing a meeting room, and advertising the group in the proper channels, was the only preparation required.
I had a blast working this this group, but I encountered a few pitfalls other libraries can avoid. Here are a few things I learned from my language journey:
Set reasonable expectations
If you are starting a new conversation group, set reasonable goals and clearly communicate them to your attendees. I initially envisioned the group as a space for international students and residents to talk about research interests and coursework. I advertised to all the student offices and hoped that I would have enough attendees to keep the group going.
At an average of 4-5 attendees per week I had enough attendees to hold regular meetings. Many of these attendees were anticipating a formal ESL class, and I quickly learned not to throw the term ESL around unless you truly intend to offer an ESL curriculum. Once I demonstrated how our informal group would work, most people adjusted to the less-structured format.
I was surprised that the main participants were visiting researchers rather than students and residents. Visiting researchers are often in the TMC for 1-2 years, working in labs and clinics. They usually have advanced English skills, but they may work in labs where their colleagues have similar international backgrounds. Some participants explained that they used Mandarin or Hindi exclusively at work did not practice English in that environment.
Because they are usually advanced in their careers and not part of a formal curriculum, the library had few opportunities to offer formal outreach to this group. Conversation group offered an unexpected opportunity to learn more about their information needs.
Expect the unexpected
There are a wealth of conversation group question banks available, and I have my entire year’s worth of conversation topic slides available here. Although I carefully planned each session, I learned that I could never predict the direction the conversation would take.
By encouraging participants to ask off-topic questions, I discovered their most pressing questions were related to life outside of work. They were usually interested in events and transportation options in the Houston area, but sometimes had more complicated questions about work etiquette and government travel protocols.
It can initially be daunting to answer questions outside of the academic realm, but there are trustworthy government and public library resources to refer participants to in such cases. The researchers also served as valuable information resources for each other, often sharing experiences and tips with members who were newer to town. I loved hearing their insights about the city and the complexities of international travel.
Every conversation will be a cultural history lesson
I included many questions about art, science, and history in our question bank in a naive attempt to keep our discussions as politically neutral as possible. After a year of sessions, I gained a better understanding of how cultural backgrounds impact even the most “neutral” areas of life. At times it was tricky to navigate discussions of gender, race, and religion in a group that holds vastly different beliefs. Facilitators launching a new group need to be comfortable tactfully steering participants to new topics without halting the conversation.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, differing viewpoints led to compelling conversation rather than conflict. The common experiences of food, holidays, work, and travel can fuel hours of discussion. In one my favorite sessions, participants pinned images of architecture from their hometowns to a Padlet board, then gave a brief talk about the most famous sites from their homes to the group. This was both educational for me and a good chance for participants to practice public speaking in a low-stress environment.
Around the world in 60 minutes
English conversation group was my favorite project while working at the TMC Library. I met so many brilliant researchers I might otherwise never have interacted with in my day-to-day work.
The library as a location proved to be centralized and convenient for bringing people together from institutions across TMC. The group also highlighted the information needs of a group that was underrepresented in library services. It was a mutually beneficial learning experience that I would recommend to any library serving an international population.