Tricia Griffith at the South Burlington Public Library where she facilitates a weekly English conversation class for non-native English speakers. 

Communication and Connection: ESL Mentor Tricia Griffith Encourages English Language Learners to Share their Stories

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Thursday June 07, 2018

As close as we are to Quebec, it’s no surprise that French is the most common non-English language spoken in Vermont. But did you know that there are 64 different languages spoken throughout the state; voices which lend a multi-ethnic blend of thoughts and ideas to our communities? Tricia Griffith knows. This South Burlington resident mentors English language learners, with care and joy, every Monday evening at the South Burlington Public Library (SBPL). A former journalist and nature writer, with 16-years’ experience teaching English to American and international students at SUNY Plattsburgh, her volunteer role as facilitator of the ESL (English as a second language) conversation group over the past year and a half has been a perfect fit for her.

The inspiration behind the English Conversation Class was volunteer librarian and teacher Betty Navin, who led the group for many years. Since its inception, more than 70 adults have improved their English-speaking skills. There are currently four people in the group, from three different countries - Brazil, Turkey, and Russia – though as many as nine have participated at once, with the age range generally between 30 and 50.

Griffith explains that people join the group for various reasons. Some have come to Vermont because they have family in the area who have become U.S. citizens. Others might be preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Most have not been in the country for very long. For instance, one member, Reyhan Gungor, from Turkey, has been in Vermont for a year and a half, and has participated in the group for more than a year. For her, the benefit is that she has made friends who are also learning English while experiencing American culture. Working with Griffith has been “very positive,” Gungor says. “It makes me feel comfortable that I can ask questions. We can talk about anything.”

Norma Ribeiro and her husband, also participants, came to Vermont from Brazil not too long ago to be closer to their daughter, son-in-law, and three-year-old grandchild. As recent American citizens, this country is now their home, so they want to improve their English. Ribeiro enjoys the open exchange that takes place, and how much she learns from people from different countries.

According to SBPL Community Director Jennifer Murray, Griffith ensures a “safe environment for non-native speakers to share their stories and improve their confidence in English conversation.”

Though Griffith is their teacher, she reminds the class participants, “I am also your cultural guide.” Yet, she admits, “They’re my friends too.” As their guide, Griffith encourages them to talk about any topic that comes to mind, to choose what they want to discuss, with a focus on pronunciation. And, as Gungor says, with good-natured humor, “She corrects us when we use the wrong word.”

Sometimes Griffith brings in “graded readers,” stories adapted for people learning a foreign language such as English. But she mostly encourages participants to choose what they want to read. Recently, the group decided to read “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom, about how his reconnection with a dying college professor turns into one final “class:” how to live life. Their English becomes stronger as they explore the different themes throughout the book. Griffith also encourages them to watch films, so they can practice their listening skills.

In addition, Griffith makes use of local activities and events as learning opportunities for the group. One day they gathered at the Shelburne Museum to visit the puppet exhibit and garden. Another time she and a participant went to Snowflake Bentley in Jericho. Having spent a summer in China teaching, Griffith was eager to join one of her mentees, a native of The People’s Republic, in celebrating the year of the dog with the local Chinese community this past February.

“I always leave the group feeling good,” Griffith says, acknowledging her enjoyment of being introduced to people from other cultures and learning diverse points of view. Until Alyona Shishelyakina joined the group, Griffith had never met anyone from Siberia. All of her mentees are unique individuals, each with very different personalities. But in Griffith’s learning environment, they have at least one thing in common. They are supportive of one another while “they push themselves” to improve their English-speaking skills.

Griffith pushes herself too. She is a member of University of Vermont’s Osher Life Long Learning Institute and is a volunteer for their curriculum committee. A self-described “voracious reader,” she belongs to two different book groups. And she’s continued to take an interest in the much broader world around her, inserting herself into unfamiliar landscapes. Last year she visited Tuscany, and this year she will be traveling to Spain and Portugal. Though she does not speak fluent Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese, her experience as a teacher of language over the years has given her a sense of confidence. “I think I can survive,” she says.

Griffith’s recipe for surviving? “Keeping an open mind.” After all, there’s so much we can gain from each other. So next time you meet someone from another culture, who is learning to speak our language, take a chance, offer a smile, and say hello. As Griffith has learned, you’ll see “how much we all have in common.”

The English Conversation Class is held at the South Burlington Public Library, 155 Dorset Street, University Mall, every Monday at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call the library at 802-652-7080.


SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor