The Conversation Club meets weekly at the Menlo Park Library and is designed to help particpants improve their conversational skills with volunteer tutors.
The informal drop-in meetings are open to non-native speakers as well as U.S.-born adults who never learned to read and write to their satisfaction, according to the Conversation Club website.
Learners and volunteer tutors meet for an hour in the library's downstairs meeting room. Every week, there is a new topic that guides the conversation — for example, shopping for groceries or volunteering.
Every learner and tutor has a name tag with a sticker marking the number of times he or she has attended a session of the club. There are also pieces of paper with 10 possible questions for each table of three to five learners and a tutor to discuss.
Tutors launch the conversation at each session by asking questions for participants to answer in English. But by the end, the students take over the questioning and the conversation flows.
Some learners are Conversation Club veterans. For example, Ryoto moved from Japan two years ago and immediately started attending the meetings. But some are newcomers like Antonio, who moved from Mexico a little more than half a year ago and recently began participating to improve his language skills.
On a recent Wednesday, longtime tutor Linda Carlson and learners Ryoto and Antonio shared a table and conversation. Ryoto says that he knew some English before coming to the United States because he had an American boss at his company in Japan, but his language skills weren't strong enough for him to feel confident in his speaking abilities.
"I could not speak English as well as I could understand it," Ryoto explains.
A colleague at the USGS recommended the Conversation Club to him, and Ryoto says his speaking skills have improved, as has his confidence.
"I used to have to try to follow a conversation between multiple people, and I was too scared to jump in," he says. "Now I feel I can."
Antonio, on the other hand, knew no English before moving here, but he says he's already made progress, thanks to the help he gets through the program.
"My English skills have improved through the Conversation Club because I am forced out of my comfort zone to talk in English face to face," Antonio says. "I can't run away from it; I have to respond in English."
Antonio says that his motivation for attending these meetings is his desire to communicate with other people at his job, and improve his confidence.
The Conversation Club's parent organization is Project Read-Menlo Park, but learners don't have to attend tutoring through Project Read to attend club sessions, and vice versa. Project Read-Menlo Park has been providing one-on-one English tutoring by volunteers for adults for more than 30 years, according to its website.
Project Read Program Manager Jason Sugimura says that learners in that program meet once or twice a week with their volunteer tutor to improve their language skills. While the Conversation Club helps participants converse with others, Project Read focuses on grammar and vocabulary as well.
"With English Conversation Club, we are able to expand our services to English learners while they are waiting for tutors or (if they) have busy schedules," Sugimura explains.
Cristina Carrillo, the Conversation Club coordinator, emphasizes the importance and supportive atmosphere of the meetings. "Conversation Club is an opportunity for many in our community to practice their English in a supportive, nonthreatening environment," she says.
Carrillo hopes to expand the Conversation Club to the Belle Haven Library and add more times the program is offered. That way, she says, people who are working or cannot find child care during the usual Wednesday evening session can attend another day.
Project Read also offers beginner English classes and digital literacy coaching at the Belle Haven Library, according to its website.
Since 2012, Project Read-Menlo Park has tutored more than 736 learners from 56 different countries according to its website. It is supported by the nonprofit Literacy Partners, whose president is Conversation Club and Project Read tutor Linda Carlson.
"I tutor because I have fun doing it and love seeing the English learners making progress and gaining confidence," Carlson says.
The Conversation Club meets every Wednesday from 5 to 6 p.m. For information go to projectreadmenlopark.org/english-conversation-club.
For more information on Project Read-Menlo Park, visit its website at projectreadmenlopark.org.