Come for the conversation, stay for the friendships | Windows and Mirrors

Talk Time classes allow English language learners to practice their speaking and conversation skills.

Just because something works on paper, doesn’t mean it works when applied practically.

For example, just because the bullet points of a person’s life — their cultural background, education level and career field, hobbies and interests, values, etc. — may seem appealing to you and what you’re looking for in a partner, doesn’t mean the two of you would work well in real life once you meet. You have to take into account the other person’s personality as well as whether the two of you have any chemistry.

Same goes for learning a new language.

Just because you may be able to read and write in a language, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to speak it flawlessly. That takes practice.

To give people a chance to practice their English skills, Aljoya Mercer Island hosts Talk Time, a conversation class for English language learners. While the weekly class is held at the retirement community, it is open to the public.

Building skills and friendships

James Yang has been attending the meetings regularly for about a month. The Bellevue resident came to the United States from China nearly five years ago and takes English as a second language classes in addition to coming to Talk Time at Aljoya. He said the latter gives him an opportunity to practice speaking English.

In addition to building speaking skills, participants also have built friendships with each other as well as the Aljoya residents who volunteer with the class.

“They are really friendly,” Maria Lanz, said, adding that “you can make mistakes” in class and it’s OK.

Lanz, an Islander originally from Mexico, has been attending the class for about a year and said it has given her the confidence to be able to express herself in English.

The classes are informal — everyone welcomed me when I stopped by one of their classes and did not make me feel like I was disrupting anything — and people attend as they are able. But because there are regulars, Lanz said they do miss each other whenever someone is absent — fellow students and volunteers alike.

This is exactly what happened the day I visited the week before Christmas. When one woman arrived, she immediately asked where a certain volunteer was because she had become good friends with him and he wasn’t there. Turned out he had an appointment and couldn’t make it in till the last half of the class. And upon his arrival the woman immediately greeted him.

Nichole Buning, volunteer coordinator at Aljoya, said it’s been fun to see the relationships among students and volunteers grow.

Paying it forward

Talk Time has been held at Aljoya for a little more than a year, and it has been held in King County Library System locations throughout the Eastside and beyond for longer.

Buning worked with the Talk Time program at the Mercer Island Library to bring it to the retirement community. In her role at Aljoya, she looks for opportunities for community residents to volunteer and Talk Time is exactly that. Some of the Aljoya residents are retired teachers and volunteering for Talk Time classes gives them a chance to exercise that muscle again.

Yang said he has been impressed with and thankful for the volunteers and how the United States has more formal organizations and programs specifically for volunteers. China doesn’t really have that, he said.

He added that after meeting the volunteers from Aljoya, he has been inspired to volunteer and pay it forward. For his volunteer work, he drives senior citizens around on errands and to and from appointments.

Getting off topic is fine

Buning will provide topics of discussions for each class and the residents lead the conversations in small groups. Topics they’ve discussed include current events, sports, voting and cultural festivals. The class discussed different winter holiday traditions from different cultures the day I visited.

“Sometimes they go off topic… and that’s all fine,” Buning said.

Talk Time is not “taught” to specific curriculum or to a test. The point of the class is to just practice speaking.

This makes sense to me. I don’t know about you, but I remember learning French in high school and Italian in college and how those classes weren’t exactly conversational. Those classes were more about forms of speech and grammar rules than what you would say to a French or Italian person if you met them. While that is all important — as a writer, grammar errors and incorrect forms of speech are huge pet peeves (especially when I’m the perpetrator) — knowing how to formally ask an older woman, “Where is the library?” can only take you so far if you’re just dropped in the middle of a foreign country.

You need to know how to actually talk to people, and that is what Talk Time does.

‘It goes both ways’

Rose Fu, who is originally from China, has been attending classes for about two years — first when it was just at the library, adding the Aljoya classes to her schedule when they started.

Since she started Talk Time she has been engaging with people outside of the classes more and more.

“She keeps doing it,” said her daughter Jenny Wang, who was visiting her mother from out of town and tagged along to the class.

For example, while on a cruse, Fu met an American woman. The Islander said in her experience, people of similar backgrounds typically stick together, but this other woman didn’t see her as just Chinese and they became friends. Fu still keeps in touch with the other woman and said the friendship has made her realize that people can be open minded and be friends with people who are different from them.

And just as students like Fu have learned more than just how to speak better English, they are also not the only ones who have learned things in Talk Time.

“I learn every week,” Barbara Kelly, an Aljoya resident volunteer, said. “It goes both ways. I’ve learned tons and tons.”

This could be due to all their different topics of discussion, which lend themselves to conversation and a back and forth that leads to people sharing their own experiences and opinions.

“It is educational on both sides because we’re all learning,” Buning said.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@

From left, James Yang and Maria Lanz discuss holiday treats during the last Talk Time class before Christmas at Aljoya Mercer Island. Samantha Pak/staff photo

From left, James Yang and Maria Lanz discuss holiday treats during the last Talk Time class before Christmas at Aljoya Mercer Island. Samantha Pak/staff photo