On a recent Wednesday, conversation in the cool of a library side room drifted from movies to travel to weather as the small group slid from English to Spanish to Spanglish, using whatever words worked best to keep the chat alive.
This handful of regulars at the Tualatin Library’s new Intercambio Spanish-English conversation hour are building fluency and, hopefully, new friendships as they help each other learn.
“It’s very informal,” library outreach specialist Immer Honorato said. “I really want it to be whatever (participants) want it to be.”
Honorato started in the group in early April by request. English classes have been a frequent ask of Spanish-speaking patrons, he said, and though the library can’t provide formal classes, Intercambio provides a time and space to practice and builds connections.
He facilitates getting the conversation flowing, cheerleads a little to bolster confidence, pairs people to talk one-on-one, and steps aside.
“At the end of the day, I want people to be more comfortable, so they are able to learn, to talk and not be embarrassed at whatever level of language capacity they have,” he said, adding no matter how well they speak, everyone underestimates themselves.
It’s a common obstacle. Everyone believes they are terrible at the language they’re learning, and the fear of getting something wrong ties tongues.
“Sometimes I need more ‘confianza’ (confidence) for talking,” said Alma Morelos. “When people are talking in English, sometimes I have the ‘respuesta,’ the answer, but sometimes I don’t know how to say it.”
Morelos immigrated from Mexico about four years ago. She was nervous about attending Intercambio for the first time but wants to get more comfortable speaking the English she’s learning at Portland Community College.
The fledgling Intercambio meetings, though small, are drawing a few regulars with varying commands of the language they’re learning.
Miriam Ramirez moved to Oregon from a Mexican border town last October to learn English. She’ll spend a year at her sister’s house and then return home with what she hopes will be enough fluency to open new work opportunities.
“I need to speak English,” says Ramirez, who has been attending since the first meeting. “There are many American companies (where I live), and sometimes you need to speak English to get a job.”
Like Morelos, she takes classes at Portland Community College. She and another early Intercambio participant, Linda Taylor, also meet on Sundays to chat and practice.
Connections like Morelos and Taylor’s that transcend regularly scheduled meetings are exactly what Honorato hopes for.
“We’re connecting people to other members,” he said. “It’s something I think is crucial to Spanish-speaking communities to feel integrated and also feel comfortable speaking.”
David and Pam Busch, retirees who split time between Oregon and Mexico, have also become familiar faces. Like Ramirez, they’re Intercambio regulars.
And like Ramirez and the others, they’ve encountered a common obstacle on the quest to become bilingual: it’s always easier to speak their native language, and there are plenty of people on both sides of the border to speak it with them.
Morelos spends her days with a Spanish-speaking co-worker. Though her husband and adult children are bilingual, Spanish is the language of their family conversation.
In Mexico, the Busches are surrounded by English-speaking ex-pats.
“Even in the little town where we stay, a lot of the (local) people are trying to learn English,” Pam said. “It takes me so long to come up with the Spanish, that I’ll just say it in English.”
Intercambio gives her a place to push through the self-consciousness and keep speaking.
Immer hopes to see the weekly numbers double as the program gains traction, but even if it fizzles in the long run, he considers connections built in its earliest weeks reason enough to call the Intercambio a success.
“It’s an intimate thing to share your language and to learn through other people, so having those folks having those folks interact and meet outside, I told them in the beginning that if for whatever reason this dissolves, I would be happy because they’ve connected and meet outside,” he said. “That’s kind of the best you can hope for.”
Spanish-English Intercambio meets from 4:30- 5:30 Wednesdays at the Tualatin Library. Meetings are free, and drop-ins are encouraged.