Conversation Partners Program Helps Students Learn English
The Conversation Partners program, established in the fall of 2006, is considered an integral component of the recently restructured Oberlin College English-as-a-Second-Language curriculum. Participants in the program meet once a week at their own convenience to talk informally in English. Partners include native English speakers—generally upperclassmen in the College of the Arts and Sciences—and current ESL students, most of whom are underclassmen in the Conservatory. However, Conversation Partners is currently experiencing a shortage of native English speakers.
As a part of the program, native speakers meet with ESL students to talk about “anything, anytime and anywhere that is convenient,” said Katya Grim, associate dean of studies and founder of the program. English-learning students use the program as a supplement to their ESL classes, whereas native speakers have the option of earning private reading credit or simply volunteering for the experience. Sessions are coordinated with the help of ESL teachers Stori Miller and Richard “Bo” Arbogast.
Describing the formation of the program, Grim commented, “The Conversation Partners [Program] was an idea we had during the first year of the restructured [ESL] program. We thought, why don’t we involve upperclassmen native speakers? We can give [ESL students and native speakers] a chance to talk to someone with a different linguistic, cultural and college experience.”
The benefits of this exchange range from inter-cultural understanding to helping ESL students prepare for their Test on English as a Foreign Language to assistance in increasing fluency and growing accustomed to colloquial English usage.
Arbogast, who currently teaches advanced ESL courses, spoke highly of the program’s enhancement of students’ abilities outside of the classroom. He described the difficulties of attaining fluency through limited instruction, explaining that before the introduction of conversation partners, ESL students only had the opportunity to work on integrated skills for approximately three hours a week.
“It’s a chance to build a relationship with someone,” he said. “It’s a safe environment” in which students do not feel that they are being graded on performance but can relax and let the conversation go where it will.
Dean Grim added, “Becoming integrated in the larger Oberlin College community is often an intimidating process for international students learning English.”
In addition to serving as a means of providing ESL students with extra conversational practice and facilitating connection between students of different backgrounds, the program has also helped many international students satisfy the Oberlin Conservatory’s requirement of passing the TOEFL, which involves giving an academic address, with a certain minimum score.
“It’s a different register of speech, a more formal language than simply talking about the weather,” said Arbogast.
“Native English speakers are expected to correct ESL students’ grammar and usage during meetings,” added Grim.
The Conversation Partners program also allows English speakers to foster their knowledge about a different part of the world. Arbogast explained, “I’ve seen a few conversation partners who might be second- or third-generation immigrants” trying to reconnect with their heritage by speaking with others who share it.
“We are very careful to pair students based on interests,” said Grim. “In the spring we coordinate with Shansi and several language departments.”
English speakers studying a language at Oberlin are occasionally with ESL students who are native speakers of that language, allowing for inter-linguistic exchange in addition to inter-cultural communication.
Volunteers also have the option of sitting in on ESL class sessions, an experience that could be valuable to students considering programs such as the Shansi Fellowship, the Peace Corps and other ESL-related post-Oberlin experiences.
Despite all of these potential benefits, both Arbogast and Grim stressed a lack of involvement on the part of native English speaking students.
“It’s never been so hard to find students,” said Grim. “[The program] has been working well and we want to continue it. Any help we can get would be appreciated.”