I myself am an immigrant to the United States. My family came here when I was four years old. I remember how hard it was to learn English. I despaired that I would never learn how to speak and read English, but I did it! Learning another language was very rewarding and has reaped a lot of dividends, like being able to write this blog entry for instance. A few years ago, I went to Japan for six weeks and I took some Japanese classes there. It was so much fun. Learning a language, although a tad difficult is also extremely rewarding because it is an excuse to socialize with other people in a fun and yet productive way. In my experience, people wanting to learn a language are quite diverse in both background and age. I remember studying Japanese with people from America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. What brought us together was our curiosity to learn and our drive to improve ourselves. We had a lot of good times and we made friends along the way.
At the library I have tried to share these types of positive experiences I have had, while learning new languages. Here are some examples:
- First, when I was the manager of Queens Library at Seaside, I spoke with a woman who wanted to volunteer for the library. I asked her about her background and she said she was a retired reporter from Columbia. With her background in writing and communication, I suggested that she start a Spanish club and she did. We scheduled this program once a week in the afternoons after 3:00 pm. What was interesting is that we got senior citizens who just wanted to come in, chat, and learn something new. Adults who learned Spanish at school or college, wanted to refresh their memories. We got native Spanish speakers who just wanted to speak in Spanish. And we got one or two high school students who were taking Spanish and they wanted to complement their learning in school (and have someone check their homework). It took some time to build a following, but eventually this became a very popular program. I think it is important to remember all the customers and staff coming in the door have something special to bring to the table. Take time to find that “thing” it can pay-off big!
- Another example, as manager of Queens Library at South Hollis I still had my Japanese lessons on my mind, and we had quite a few customers who were interested in Japanese animation. So, I started a Japanese Language Club. At first I used books and videos. I called it a self-study group since I am by no means proficient in Japanese. But after a while, it seemed like there was a need for someone to teach us. I did some research online and found a plethora of language instructors. I found a native Japanese-language speaker willing to do lessons for a reasonable fee, via Skype. We decided to try it for the Japanese Language Club at the library and she was excellent! One of our customers, a veteran, said it was his first time using Skype. He also chatted in English to ask questions about Japanese culture. I was happy to facilitate this dialogue and create a new experience for our customers. We do the lessons every week now, and they’re a lot of fun!
- My third example is meeting people where they are and just accepting them as they are. For many customers, including school aged children, English is not their first language. So using volunteers from our Library Friends Group, we were able to create a Multi-Lingual Homework Help Service, with volunteers helping kids do their homework in their native language including Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole. I thought this was a fun and re-affirming program. As an immigrant myself, I know the loneliness of feeling like you’re different from everyone because you don’t speak English. I felt as a librarian, I was able to go full-circle and create a welcoming atmosphere for my patrons, and send them a message: You’re not alone, we’re here for you!