No experience teaches the value of communication and the power of the spoken word quite like visiting a country where one cannot speak the language. Imagine, then, what challenges must face new Americans who have immigrated without mastery of English, let alone command of the distinct American version of the tongue. Data since the 2000 census indicate that immigrants account for twelve percent of our total population, the highest percentage in eighty years. 1 Young children learn English in school and from their playmates, but adults often have a more difficult time learning the language.

Fairfax County …
residents speak ninety
-two languages…

Employed adults may not have opportunities on the job to practice English skills or the time to meet English-speaking people outside their family and work groups. Unemployed adults may be isolated by family responsibilities or have no particular need to reach beyond their comfort sphere. Assimilation is hard for these individuals. Samuel P. Huntington, in his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity , discusses both a historical view and current trends in assimilation in the United States (see, in particular, pages 158–170).

People gathered at conference table.

Patrons gather to practice English.

Fairfax County, whose residents speak ninety-two languages, is the most linguistically diverse county in Virginia, according to statistics published by the U.S. English Foundation. 2 Seven branches of the Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL), as well as other libraries, large and small, public and academic, have begun to offer assistance through English conversation groups. These groups are frequently led by volunteers. While no particular training is required, this article will share some personal experiences for librarians wishing to consider such a program.

Conversation Leader

The best person for this job is someone who understands how it feels to live in another culture, speaking a new language. The person may have broad travel experience or have lived in non--English-speaking situations. Ideally, the conversation leader may have some teaching experience or other experience in managing groups of people. Volunteers who serve in this capacity often indicate that they get more out of it than the students do!

Commitment to a regular schedule is very important, so team teaching is strongly recommended to maintain continuity. Team leadership will permit one leader to miss a session without disappointing students or imposing on library staff. Building rapport and reliability with the group is essential. Indeed, the group leaders may be the only "Americans" to whom students can bring a question or problem.

The best leader will listen carefully and encourage the group to talk. Group-inclusive activities as well as activities for pairs should be part of each session. The group should not become a forum for the leader, nor should an outspoken student monopolize the discussion. Indeed, the focus here is on culture and skill-building as well as conversation. Even people who can speak the language well might be looking for help to see the humor in our comic strips or to make sense of our idioms. For instance, one of the authors had the experience of explaining, in the context of giving her medical history to a young physician from India, that her status as an "English major" had nothing to do with the army of Great Britain. While the leader is not expected to teach English in the traditional sense, obvious errors should be gently corrected. A dictionary and basic grammar book should always be available.

Our experience has shown that leaders may be recruited by appropriate signage in the library that hosts the conversation group. Signs should state the preferred qualifications; then it is up to the library staff to be selective. Choose a team that will work well together, and be sure to put the members in contact with colleagues in nearby branches if you can.


Someone who speaks fluent English has met the most essential job requirement, though it is good to have a leader who does not have a strong regional accent. The leader's speech should be similar to others in the locale.

A tour of the library where the group meets should be provided for leaders.

The location of basic English materials would be a priority stop on the orientation. Other important areas would be books and audiobooks that might be considered "easy reading." Information about library cards, as well as library and community activities, should be included. A staff librarian should be designated as a point of contact who can assist in getting materials, scheduling rooms, and acting as a guest presenter on certain topics (for example, the relevant page of your library website).

Tom Mason, an experienced conversation group leader, has prepared an online guide for conversation teachers. He makes the point that the most important part of the teacher's job is to make friends and to represent America. This is an important difference from the teacher who issues grades, enforces classroom rules of attendance, and maintains a certain distance. Other resources listed in Mason's bibliography will help get the program started in your library by providing suggestions for activities. 3

Libraries sponsoring conversation groups are advised to investigate local schools, government agencies, and community organizations for training opportunities. Adult Education programs and community colleges may offer classes with professional teachers who have English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) expertise. In our case, Fairfax County residents wishing to improve their English in a more formal way have several options. Some companies such as Hyatt Hotels and Wendy's (in Northern Virginia) offer English as a second language to employees. On the FCPL "Information for New Americans" webpage, our Living in the U.S. Customer Service team has posted listings of classes in local schools and houses of worship as well as audiovisual materials the library owns that will help English language learners ( ). In addition, the Fairfax County Public Schools classes for adults are listed at .

Both libraries and group leaders should build a network of contacts with community social services. Referrals for housing, healthcare, childcare, and job search support are very important. Perhaps the most important contacts for group leaders are with leaders of other groups to share ideas and techniques.


Most libraries have at least a small collection of ESOL materials for use by English language learners. For libraries using the Dewey system, check 640 for items on daily life in the United States, 428.3 for idiom materials, and 302 for conversation activities and topics.

More advanced students might enjoy the challenge of a book group. Some libraries have boxed sets of easy-to-read books with cassettes to listen to while reading along.

Easy English News , a monthly newspaper, provides timely news articles and activities at about a fourth-grade level. Students enjoy the crossword puzzles and idiom studies.


Learning can occur in social situations away from the regular meeting place. In one library, the group leader held a baby shower for a group member in her home. Two library staff members also attended. The students learned vocabulary, some American traditions, and the concepts of paid staff and volunteer staff. The attending staff learned that "volunteering" is not always a familiar concept in other ethnic communities.

Holidays provide wonderful opportunities for learning history and culture and for having fun. The members of one conversation group were up to their elbows scraping out pumpkins and listening to scary stories during a Halloween party when the library lights went out. That was really scary!

Several websites have activities for ESOL students that might be useful for conversation leaders, too. Over time, groups develop their own personalities. Give them opportunities to report on newspaper stories, put on skits, or share books they have read and enjoyed.

Meeting Space

A comfortable room compatible with the size of the group is essential. A few people in a large room can be intimidating. A room with a table in the center with chairs drawn up around it is good. -Ideally, the group should be kept small so that each person may have the opportunity to speak. Provide a chalkboard or whiteboard to write words, draw pictures, sketch maps, and otherwise illustrate ideas.


In our community, little publicity is needed. A sign announcing English conversation groups in the library may be enough. A notice in local newspapers or on a community bulletin board will also be effective. Most groups start small, but the word seems to spread throughout the community, attracting others. As the group grows, classroom management techniques become important.


The library benefits by attracting new library cardholders and customers. Learning English makes for stronger families and communities by educating individuals and preparing them for work. With luck, these new neighbors may become new volunteers to help in the effort to reach out to others in ways of which the staff is unaware. Huntington makes the point that it is the motivated individual who chooses to leave his homeland for another country. 4 While public libraries might not have been traditional in their countries of origin, this partnership of "student" and "teacher" provides another stepping stone to success for both parties.

Spanish is the language of three of the countries who send the most immigrants to the United States (Mexico, El Salvador, and Cuba). 5 Perhaps someone in the English conversation group might have a contact person who could assist the library by offering a Spanish conversation group as well.

Other benefits are less predictable. One attractive au pair was introduced to a library staff member from the same country. When the au pair met the staffer's son, a relationship developed that led to a wedding. Who knows what can happen at your library?

For many of us, one of the attractions of a career in public libraries is the opportunity to perceive and address the needs of our communities. A look at your neighborhoods will convince you that the need to help our newest neighbors learn our common language is one that libraries have the heart to address.


1 Steven A. Camarota, "Economy Slowed, But Immigration Didn't," in Backgrounder [journal online] November 2004 [cited 12 October 2005]; available from .

2 U.S. English Foundation, "Most Linguistically Diverse Counties," in Many Languages, One America [report online] 2005 [cited 26 October 2005]; available from
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3 Tom Mason, The Online Conversation Leader Handbook [handbook online] 1 May 1999 [cited 12 October 2005]; available from .

4 Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 189–192.

5 Camarota.

Additional Resources

To see how large metropolitan libraries address these issues, visit:

Other useful websites

Caroline Fitzpierce is information assistant at Reston Regional Library , Fairfax County Public Library, and may be reached at .

Denise Morgan is branch manager of Lorton Library , Fairfax County Public Library, and may be reached at .