‘How and Why: Tips for Starting an English Conversation Club’ by Emily K. Iekel

There are many excellent reasons for starting a conversation club for English learners. Here are just a few:

1. To help ESL and EFL students practice their conversation skills outside the classroom.

Classroom learning is a wonderful thing, but with new or foreign languages, outside practice is essential for reinforcement of language concepts, especially spoken language. Even ELL (English Language Learners) who read and write fairly well may be less confident in their speaking abilities, and even ELL who speak fairly well may still need some extra practice to overcome common language-learning errors such as interference—using the structure of their first language with an English sentence—which may not always be grammatically correct (Bryce and McKibbin).

2. To give native speakers of English the opportunity to engage in community service and learn more about other cultures.

An English conversation club is a wonderful opportunity for native speakers to benefit their communities by helping struggling learners of English. It is a particular chance for students who may have school service requirements to fulfill, but can also provide the opportunity for native speakers of any age and state in life to familiarize themselves with aspects of other cultures. It benefits not only the instructor, who may be starting the club as a job or a form of service, but any native speakers he or she may ask to join in order to help members practice and learn.

3. To give those same native speakers the chance to get some first-hand experience in education.

Students or professionals interested in pursuing a career in education can gain valuable, unique experience by starting, or assisting with, English conversation clubs. Depending on the club, they can gain experience with a particular age group (such as ages 10-13), or with a wide range of learners of many ages (“kids from 1 to 92”, as the saying goes). If you are establishing a club, consider inviting an education student or two, or a professional in education, to join your meetings. Your members will get clear explanation from and practice with someone skilled, or being skilled, in educational techniques, and your “assistants” will gain great professional and personal experience. If you are a student or professional interested in a career in education, consider asking to join an English conversation group in your area—or, if none exists, even starting your own!

4. And even to help those same native speakers of English improve their own English skills! 

Native speakers, naturally, have no problem with fluency and second-language issues such as interference (see #1). But it may be surprising to learn that many native speakers have trouble defining parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc.), and differentiating between the uses of qualifiers such as that, who, or which (Smith). Conversing with someone else can help reinforce a native speaker’s knowledge of grammar, especially if the learner asks you how “quiet” and “quietly” differ.

5. To foster globalism and internationalism.

Another excellent reason to start an English conversation club is to promote the globalism and internationalism of today’s world. English is the official language of the United Nations, spoken as a first language by 330 million people worldwide and 580 million more as an acquired language (English, the International Language). It is also a common language in research and science. Starting an English conversation club is a way to contribute to international relations and be a part of the ongoing globalization in research, diplomacy, and technology.

You’ve decided you want to start a conversation club! But how? It can be difficult to know where to look for venues. Here are a few places in which you can find English conversation opportunities, and some of them may be a bit unexpected!

1. Public libraries.

Public libraries are full of resources both educational and entertaining, electronic and digital. The perfect way to introduce English language learners to those resources, and promote the library, is to find a local public library to host an English conversation group. Eric H. Roth, author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics- An Engaging ESL Textbook for Advanced Students and a member of the USC faculty, has more to say on the subject at Compelling Conversations, http://compellingconversations.com/blog/2010/06/16/library-esl-conversation-clubs-grow/.

2. University student centers.

This one is not just for undergraduate and graduate students. Many university student centers allow the posting of fliers on bulletin boards, which are usually located in places where students gather for activities, coffee, or hang out time. Those fliers (for activities, sports, jobs…) can be from the local community as well as the student body or student organizations, and are a good way to attract foreign students, native or fluent English speakers, and even local immigrants to a conversation club. One can also, in many cases, distribute fliers in front of or near the center, and may generate interest that way.

3. Community centers.

Similar to student centers, community centers (gymnasiums, recreation facilities…) are a great place to post fliers to advertise a conversation club, or to personally distribute fliers. Even senior centers and assisted living are possibilities, and a good way to ensure that a conversation club contains members of every age!

4. Parish outreach centers. 

Again, like universities, many churches and parishes have outreach centers for the poor and immigrants in their communities. Those are a great place to start an English conversation club, since they often sponsor ESL classes—in fact a conversation club may be an excellent supplement for a church’s already-existing ESL course, or a less stressful alternative for those who don’t want to learn English in a classroom setting. St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Washington (D.C.) gives a great example of how to schedule an ESL course, and some statistics on attendance rates and ideal number of students (in the case of a conversation club, the schedule and statistics can still be useful) here: http://www.stmatthewscathedral.org/outreach/esl.

5. Bars and cafes

Many bars and cafes have multilingual trivia nights, where you can sit over a coffee or a beer and practice a language, while trying to remember who the 2002 American Idol champion was (or the 1968 Oscar for Best Picture). Some of those nights are dedicated to a specific language, and, as the saying goes, alcohol improves your language skills (though only up to a certain point of consumption…). Trivia nights, though, may not provide the ideal conversation club setting (i.e., be quiet enough), so it’s worth considering hosting a meeting on a different evening, or finding a cafe or bar which does what the Mickey House English Cafe in Takadanobaba, Tokyo has been doing for 30 years: a relaxing conversation lounge with a weekly schedule for different languages (including English, French, German, and Russian as well as Japanese), which may help your conversation club with a comfortable setting and ideas for new activities. More information and ideas from Mickey House here: http://mickeyhouse.jp/english/.

So you’ve gotten your club started. You have interested members and a location for your first meeting. But it can be overwhelming to begin a venture such as this one. Here are two huge tips on how to make your first meeting, and the ones after that, run more smoothly, and ensure that your conversation club is always an educational, interesting, and engaging experience:

1. Set a schedule.

Once a week for about two hours is the recommended time for meetings, since it can be difficult for members to commit more of their time to the club (EnglishClub). Additional monthly excursions, and a variety of activities, can keep meetings fresh and interesting. Setting a schedule helps members carve out time for the club (though the times may change as the club goes on).

2. Have different themes and/or activities for each meeting.

Themes and activities will vary depending on what club members want to learn or practice. Some conversation clubs will be as casual as asking people to come to meetings with a topic they’d like to discuss or debate. Some might make schedules of themes for different meetings, and assign members to lead each meeting. You can find a sample schedule and more ideas for activities here: http://www.englishclub.com/english-clubs/english-club.htm.

Works Cited

Bryce, Alejandro and Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin. Acquiring English as a Second Language. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. 1997-2013. April 2013.

<http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/easl.htm>.

English Club. 1997-2013. April 2013. <http://www.englishclub.com/english-clubs/english-club.htm>.

English, the International Language. April 2013. <http://www.english-the-international- language.com/>.

Mickey House English Cafe. April 2013. <http://mickeyhouse.jp/english/>.

Outreach: English Language Classes. Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Patron Saint of Civil Servants. 2007-2013. April 2013. <http://www.stmatthewscathedral.org/outreach/esl>.

Roth, Eric H. Library ESL Conversation Clubs Grow. Compelling Conversations. 16 June 2010. April 2013. <http://compellingconversations.com/blog/2010/06/16/library-esl-conversation-clubs- grow/>.

Smith, Kempton, Ph.D. Top 10 Common English Grammar Mistakes. Kempton Smith, Ph.D. Dissertation Statistics Consulting. 2013. April 2013. <http://www.kemptonsmith.com/grammartips.html>.

About Emily K. Iekel

Emily is an American student in the postgraduate program in Specialized Translation at KU Leuven in Antwerp, Belgium. She is currently an intern at Eurologos in Brussels, Belgium, and freelance as an editor, writer and researcher. She is a published poet (Elfwood, Salome Magazine, Troubadour21, and other print and online publications). Visit Emily’s blog No Touch Tree at notouchtree.wordpress.com.