April 14, 2000

Students Get Language Practice, Volunteers Enjoy Cultural Enrichment at MiraCosta's New `International Conversation Cafe'

It's not unusual to see groups of students chatting at Mira-Costa College's Student Center. But on two recent occasions, the crowd was larger and the conversation louder than usual in the Aztlan rooms, just off the main dining area.

What was going on? passersby asked.

The answer: MiraCosta College's International Conversation Cafe, designed to provide conversation practice for students of Spanish, English, German, French, and Japanese — and free lunch, too.

At each of 13 tables —set with checkered cloths and bedecked with the flags of various countries — language practice is led by instructors, English as a Second Language aides, tutors, and volunteers from MiraCosta's LIFE organization (which hosts weekly activities for older adults at the Oceanside campus). These facilitators follow a conversation "menu" featuring an "appetizer" topic, "main courses" topic and "dessert" topic. The real menus have included pizza and rolled tacos.

"It's really cool," says Brian Crogan, who is studying Japanese to improve his competitive edge in the business world. "You get to apply what you've learned out of the text and throw it out to native speakers and use it in a fun atmosphere. It's the social aspect that's best, the opportunity to network with people who share the common goal of learning the language."

MiraCosta College ESL instructor Debbie Hanley got the idea for a conversation cafe last year at a CATESOL conference (California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). She added the menu concept and then, along with ESL instructor Jayne Bernasconi, launched a weekly Conversation Coffee Shop for ESL students at the college's Adult Learning Complex. The cafe was an instant success.

In the months that followed, MiraCosta's Dean of Arts and Communications Ann Carli won a grant to develop a Language and Culture Alliance, which includes the college's International Language Department, credit and noncredit ESL, Community Service Language Workshops, which, says Carli, "coalesces the leaders and instructors of these programs in an effort to expand and enhance language study." When representatives of the Alliance met, one of the first ideas that came up was to expand the ESL Conversation Coffee Shop to an international event for all language students.

"I think the International Conversation Cafe has a neat bridging element... different nationalities coming together, the old and the young, students from the Adult Learning Complex coming to MiraCosta's Oceanside campus, stronger students helping students who are just learning. I saw bridges I didn't even anticipate," says Hanley. "I think it would be a great idea to bridge out to the community and make it yet even more international."

In addition to making the Cafe a regular event, Hanley and Carli envision informal sessions at which community members who speak languages not offered at the college could come to the campus and join in the learning fun. Certainly, getting volunteer facilitators shouldn't be a problem; they seem to enjoy the sessions as much as the language students.

LIFE member Mildred Rose has volunteered at every conversation cafe the college has held, including 13 ESL events and the two recent international sessions.

"I've traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe, I'm into the cultural arts, and I'm very much into education," says Rose. "This is like an offshoot of all that."

Rose has worked with students from countries including Mexico, Japan, Iran, Poland, Thailand, Egypt, Argentina, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. She follows the "menu," but says that in the process she likes to get students to talk about their interests —what they're studying, what their ambitions are, if they plan to go back to their countries, even their favorite recipes. She tells them about plays, concerts and dance performances at the college. And sometimes, it just gets down to basic communication.

"One girl didn't know what the word `hug' meant," says Rose, "so I just walked around the table and showed her."

The next International Conversation Cafe will be held April 27, noon-1, in Aztlan A and B at the Oceanside campus Student Center.

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