When Ellen Childress visited an English as a Second Language (ESL) class in Garland, she felt the spark of a God-sized dream light up in her heart. She, along with a number of other people from First Methodist Carrollton, began to wonder how they could start a similar ministry at our church.
“We were just so fascinated by what they were doing there,” Ellen recalled.
The ESL teacher would go through the curriculum and then would begin a Bible story. The teacher would tell part of the story but would leave the students on a cliff-hanger, inviting them to return on Sunday to hear the rest of it. After Ellen and her team experienced the class, English Conversation Hour was born.
In the beginning, this weekly meet-up was mostly populated by Chinese Master’s level students who were encouraged to visit by Mary Beth Goodrich, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. The students, often participating to meet a course requirement, came regularly and were able to form lasting relationships with their conversation partners. When COVID forced the world into quarantine, everything changed. As global travel shut down, so did the natural pathway from Mary Beth’s classroom to the church.
“Over the past five years, we have had over 250 people walk through our doors on Wednesday night to get some help,” Ellen explained. “These days, a lot of Mary Beth’s students are Indian and are proficient in English, so they don’t feel the need to come. In losing the university [students], we have had a lot of people—many of them Muslims or Venezuelan refugees—that just drive by and see the sign.”
At its core, English Conversation Hour is a little more advanced than an ESL course. If a student walks in and does not have a strong enough proficiency in English, they are directed to a nearby church that offers an ESL curriculum. The goal of English Conversation Hour is to help students get comfortable speaking English—and get comfortable with our American culture.
“We talk about Easter bunnies in the grocery store, homecoming mums—all kinds of things that they would see and think to themselves, ‘What on earth is that for?’ We also talk about calling 9-1-1 in an emergency or how to buy car insurance, all kinds of daily-living stuff,” Ellen explained.
It’s one thing to understand English, but speaking it is often difficult. While our brains can understand foreign sounds and use context clues to infer meaning, speaking a foreign language adds an extra cognitive load. It requires forming a thought, correctly translating the thought, and then getting your voice and mouth to work together in an unfamiliar way to produce a meaningful sentence. This can get especially difficult in high-pressure situations.
“We have a police officer come in and talk about what to do if you get stopped and you get nervous because English isn’t your first language,” Ellen said. “One time, while I was visiting my daughter in China, I got lost and no one spoke English to me. I was so terrified, and I didn’t have a phone number to call. I want [these students] to have a phone number they can call. I don’t want them to ever be as afraid as I was.”
In an effort to encourage relationship building, students and volunteers are paired together in one-on-one groups. Sometimes there are more students than volunteers, and sometimes there are more volunteers than students.
“When we had just started back, I walked out with a man from Mexico, probably in his 60s, and he teared up. He said, ‘I know we didn’t have enough people here, but it means so much that there would be so many Christians willing to help us—that care about us.’ And he’s a tough guy—he’s not a crier,” Ellen recalled.
Ellen makes sure everyone in the room knows that they are in a Christian church, that the volunteers are all Christian and that they care about the students.
“We tell them that in the introduction [of the class], but we don’t bang them over the head with [Christianity],” Ellen said, “but as we explain Easter bunnies and Santa Claus, shoot, you have to tell the real meaning of those holidays. So we’re able to put a lot of Christian things in our conversations without saying, ‘We want you to become a Christian.’”
Talking about faith is a common way of helping students practice English. Although there is a story for them to read aloud so volunteers can correct their pronunciation, students are also asked to recall their homelands, explain their religious background, their relationship to Christianity, and other things about their culture and home.
“Some of them are really homesick and they need to talk about their country and their family,” Ellen explained. “We have a medical doctor who is now working as a janitor and an Interpol lawyer who is working as a janitor. So they aren’t just leaving their homeland, they’re leaving the economic and educational cultures as well.”
We have a medical doctor who is now working as a janitor and an Interpol lawyer who is working as a janitor. So they aren’t just leaving their homeland, they’re leaving the economic and educational cultures as well.
Humor can be one of the hardest points of learning a new language, but those involved with English Conversation Hour know how to have fun. Students who come and participate in English Conversation Hour are not only introduced to American culture, they get help understanding Texas culture as well.
“We have a list of 10 idioms that are just impossible to understand, and a lot of Texan words that don’t appear in English textbooks like ‘y’all’. One of the idioms is ‘when pigs fly’ and my partner exclaimed, ‘That will never happen!’ I said, ‘That’s exactly the point!’ And a lot of the students will explain idioms from their language and culture as well,” Ellen said.
Getting involved is easy. As long as you have a strong grasp of English and American culture, you would be a great volunteer.
“We give you a sheet with guidelines, and one of them is ‘You don’t talk, let them talk,’ which is really hard for us as Americans,” Ellen chuckled. “It’s easy to get involved, but you have to be willing to share your heart and share the love of Jesus anyway you can. The Bible is very clear that we need to welcome the foreigners, love on the foreigners and help the foreigners. The Bible says it over and over, and this is an opportunity to do just that.”