Center offers free, one-on-one conversational English lessons.
By Alison Graef
Thiep Ngo, 68, came to the U.S. from his birth country of Vietnam in 2011. He said he has wanted to come to the states since communism spread across Vietnam in 1975, but the government made it difficult to leave.
“Under dictator government, many people live in difficult (situations),” Ngo said. “The government controls every action.”
Ngo’s oldest son, who is in the Army, was finally able to arrange to get him into the U.S. Ngo had to leave his wife, Thuy Bach, three adult children and his business behind to move to the states.
With only a few high school English classes under his belt, Ngo found himself linguistically isolated in his new, English-dominated home.
It was his friend, a student at this college, who first told him about FriendSpeak, a conversational English class offered free at the Church of Christ Student Center.
And so Ngo’s path crossed that of Mark Forster, director of the center and trained FriendSpeak teacher.
Ngo and Forster started meeting weekly for one-on-one, hour-long sessions to practice Ngo’s conversational English.
Forster, who has taught about 20 people with the FriendSpeak program, said the program aims to improve grammar, syntax, pronunciation and reading comprehension.
“They want to be able to converse, and most English classes don’t do that,” Forster said. “So it’s designed to go to the next step.”
Ngo said he wants to improve his English so he can better connect with the people he sees on a daily basis.
“I would like to learn English because I want to talk (to) everyone,” Ngo said. “I want to talk to everyone. I want to talk my doctor. I want to go pharmacy. I want to come here to talk with Mark and to learn Bible.”
FriendSpeak uses the Bible’s Book of Luke as a textbook. Students read a section of text, then define words and describe the meaning of the passage. He said he is always upfront with new students about the Bible-based aspect of the program, so if people are uncomfortable with it, they are aware before starting.
“Our main goal is to help them, but secondary is to educate them in the Bible,” Forster said. “And so we tell them that upfront, just so they know that’s definitely what we’re trying to do.”
Forster said the class is not a Bible study, but the student may initiate discussion about what they’re reading.
“They’ll ask, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ And so I’ll tell them what that means from my perspective and leave it to them to decide what to do with it,” Forster said.
The first half hour is spent not in a book, but in friendly conversation, which provides valuable practice and experience to students.
“I’ll ask them things about their holidays, their family. I’ll say ‘Tell me about your kids,’” Forster said. “This is all a part of conversation. If you’re meeting somebody for the first time, these are generally things that will come up. ‘What is your occupation? Where do you live? What are your hobbies? What are your favorite foods?’”
Unlike the impersonal setting of a larger class, the program is designed to foster connections and relationships through conversation.
“As you get to know somebody, you ask more intimate questions, and they ask more intimate questions of you because you build a friendship. That’s why they call it FriendSpeak,” Forster said. “Thiep has become a friend. He enjoys coming, and I look forward to seeing him come. It’s an hour that I really look forward to.”
The program teaches students how to converse with people outside of an English-as-a-second-language classroom and in the “real world,” in which language use is casual and colloquial.
“The funny thing is when I’m trying to teach him American sayings, phrases that you don’t find in other languages. I’ll joke with him. I’ll say ‘It’s raining cats and dogs out there!’ He’ll look at me like, ‘What?’” Forster said.
“I’ll say ‘That’s an example of how sometimes words can be difficult because we use phrases that really don’t have any meaning other than our interpretation of them.’”
The program is open to students, families and community members.
Forster said people must have a basic understanding of English to benefit from the course.
Forster said the program would be useful for students who have learned ESL at this college but want to further refine their practical skills beyond what ESL can offer.
Ngo said he is glad to be in the U.S. and that the people here are happier and have much more freedom than in his home country. He said he hopes his wife will be able to join him permanently from Vietnam after the winter holidays, and he hopes his children will all eventually move to the U.S.
Ngo works daily in his garden at his home in Live Oak, tending flowers and grape vines. He is enjoying retirement and sometimes works part-time in a restaurant.
He is studying to become a U.S. citizen in the spring.
To learn more about FriendSpeak or to register for lessons, call 210-736-6750, visit www.macarthurchurch.org/friendspeak or visit the center at 301 W. Dewey Place.