May 2013
by Peter Vankevich 

Imagine wanting to learn another lan­guage when you live in an area where there are no evening classes that provide that opportunity. Yet, you note there are neighbors that speak that language and could use some help in improving their English. Why not try to help each other? That is exactly what has happened on Ocracoke this winter.

Like many communi­ties, Ocracoke includes native Spanish speakers these days. Some of them who live here have not had much formal education in learning English and have some trouble speaking, understanding or writing English and again there are no formal classes for adults to study English. Since there are many Oc­racokers who would like to learn Spanish, why not set up a program that could help someone with im­proving his or her English and get a lesson in Span­ish in return? This spirit of reciprocity was embraced this winter by many and generated both a lot of in­terest and success. So far, more than 50 people have been participating in most­ly one-on-one hour-long sessions.

You could call this a nontraditional volunteer grassroots effort in that those helping to teach a language have for the most part little or no for­mal training of teaching a second language. Rather than having that serve as a deterrent, it was – perhaps in moment of exuberance – embraced as a positive with observations such as ‘how many two year olds had to go to school to learn to speak?’ In a briefing that took place at the Ocracoke library on a cold January saturday morning a few basic yet important con­cepts were conveyed. One was to create a positive friendly atmosphere on the first meeting and the other was to just try to commu­nicate. A suggested ice­breaker was to have each person talk about him or her self, listening carefully for needed vocabulary and grammar structures that could be improved. Pro­nunciation was another important concept to work on. A wide array of exer­cises for learning English and Spanish were gath­ered from the Internet to be used as handouts since participants’ language levels were varied. In ad­dition, practical exercises such as using a cell phone and discussing a sick child or trying to establish an ap­pointment have been used.

This informal program has received a lot of sup­port. The Ocracoke United Methodist Church has permitted the use of their small classrooms and the BHM Regional Library sys­tem of which the Ocracoke Community Library is a member, rushed a lot of learning materials for both English and Spanish. The program is geared around the island work cycle and many will go on hiatus and resume the program in the fall after the busy tourist season winds down. A celebratory potluck fi­esta took place recently in the Fellowship Hall of the Methodist Church to thank Pastor Laura Stern for the support of the church com­munity. Participants Lulu Perez did a dramatic po­etic presentation in Span­ish of El Regalo by Abra­ham Rivera Sandoval and Jubal Creech did his own funny story in English about a frog and mosqui­tos. Guitarist Reyes Go­mez performed two songs in Spanish. An important benefit of this program are the new friendships that have been made. Over the next few months, we’ll be assessing how to improve this “each-one-teach-one” program and find appro­priate training techniques and learning materials for both English and Spanish.


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