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Table Talk: Conversational English Classes for Refugees

In a Sunday school classroom at St. Alban’s, El Cajon, a group of refugee women gather for a conversational English class called Table Talk. Refugees from Iraq, these women range in age from 40s to 70s. As the women practice introductions, they also share personal stories, and a lot of laughter. They said they welcome the opportunity to practice their English in a conversational setting.

The class, funded by a grant from the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, began in Eastertide of this year under the leadership of Naomi Madsen, program manager for the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s refugee ministry office. She began work with refugees in 1999 and has a keen sense of the unique needs of refugees seeking their bearings in a new land.

Students reported great appreciation for the opportunity to practice speaking in front of people; the class provides a safe place where they can get out of their comfort zone and make mistakes in an affirming environment with caring, compassionate teachers. Volunteers from the congregation of St. Alban’s comprise most of the teachers. In this setting, teaching means simply listening and conversing casually.

“The key is to make it low-key and fun,” said Naomi Madsen. “We want everyone to feel at ease, as though they were having coffee with a friend. In a setting like this, people can relax and get to know one another while also practicing English.”

Strong English skills lead to better paying jobs, and greater ability to navigate the world around them. Conversations in class focus on the real life experiences of the women: getting married, raising a family, moving to this country, and traveling to visit family. Often the session includes teaching awareness of cultural nuances and learning idiomatic expressions and US colloquialisms.

The grant from the diocese provided the start-up funds for Table Talk. The funds purchased English workbooks, dictionaries, a white board, markers, copies, refreshments, field trips and a small stipend for the administrator. The organizers are still looking for more volunteers so they can invite more English learners. The ideal ratio is one native speaker to two or three learners. They are confident they can find more learners, but without more native speakers, it would be difficult to grow.

“I am reluctant to ask more learners to join us and it’s a shame because it’s so much fun,” said Naomi Madsen. “It’s a totally joyful experience for those who participate. There’s nothing to prepare, no great expectations, just people getting together and talking. What could be easier than that?”

“As has always been the case since I started working with refugees years ago, I receive so much more than I ever give. These women have sacrificed so much to come to this country. They’re a great source of inspiration and we get to talk about wonderful things—sewing, cooking, shopping, kids. It’s great!”

Table Talk takes place every Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. at St. Alban’s, 490 Farragut Circle, El Cajon, CA 92020. English speaking volunteers are welcome and needed! Contact Naomi for more information: nmadsen@umcmission.org or 646-753-1770.


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Category: #Communications, #Outreach, #Sundays, #Worship & Formation

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