Variety of language courses offered at FaithAction

by Eric Ginsburg

French teacher Stephen Strugnell helps student Joan Hayes (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

Eight people sit around a table in the front room at FaithAction International House in Greensboro. They have varying motives for being here tonight, but right now they are taking turns reading from a children’s book called Sapo y Sepo Son Amigos in their intermediate Spanish class. Upstairs, Stephen Strugnell explains various slang terms for “I don’t know” and how to pronounce “peux” in French.

It’s a Thursday night at FaithAction, a nonprofit dedicated to forming “a united community of many cultures” through inter-faith work across nationalities and languages, particularly with Greensboro’s large immigrant and refugee populations. The banner on the wall behind some of the Spanish students says it all: “We are a nation of immigrants, united, made strong by our diversity.”

In addition to advocacy and offering a number of services, FaithAction provides a variety of language-learning opportunities to a wide range of people in Greensboro. From the organization’s relatively small white building on Church Street just north of downtown, Laura Hancox directs FaithAction’s array of language offerings through the AmeriCorps Access Program with the Center for New North Carolinians at UNCG.

Most of the classes are free and range from informal to what one might find at a local high school or college. Only the formal foreign language instruction classes like the two this Thursday night cost money, and even those are only $65 for 18 total hours of instruction.

Bob Herron has tried it all. He started out with three different Spanish language courses, and then tried the language exchange. Through the exchange program, two people are paired together for two hours a week for at least a month who are interested in learning or practicing the other’s primary language.

Herron was partnered with a man from Mexico and later someone from Peru, both of whom he ended up staying with for six to eight months. In one case they became closer friends, and Herron met his partner’s family. Hancox says it’s common for people to form close bonds with their language exchange partners, and touts it as a way the organization helps build community rather than just paying lip service to it.

The language exchange is mutually beneficial as partners work to help each other, and is the most direct exchange FaithAction offers.

Herron is currently a part of the Spanish Conversation Club, which is well suited for language speakers who are beyond the advanced foreign language courses but still benefit from having somewhere to practice. Herron’ s daughter’s family lives in Spain, and he participates in the conversation club to communicate better on trips there as well as an upcoming trip with his church to Mexico.

“It’s really providing an important thing in our community,” Herron said. “I always come out of the session having learned something.”

After his Arabic class Monday night, Andrew Trump likes to drop by on the same conversation club Herron is in. For Trump, Spanish comes easily, while learning the Arabic alphabet is proving challenging. He tried Rosetta Stone before enrolling in the class, but said being able to ask a teacher questions makes a big difference.

“I work with a lot of Arabic speakers, especially northern Sudanese [at Reading Connections],” Trump said. “It would be really useful for me to be able to speak Arabic, at least just simple conversation to welcome people in the office. It’s been tough but it’s a really fun mental exercise.”

Trump’s teacher, Tareq Almashhadani, said the students in the class sign up for many reasons, and want to learn more than just a language. They come eager to understand the Middle East, Islam, food and customs.

“This is an opportunity for people to communicate with people from other countries and cultures,” said Almashhadani, who came to the US from Iraq two years ago. “It helps provide information and promote diversity.”

FaithAction also offers classes for people learning English as a second language for free, and often do so off site. The classes last a full year as opposed to the foreign language classes, which are offered on a trimester cycle, but some attendees find it hard to make every lesson due to work, transportation and family commitments. Hancox said they advertise their English classes extensively and try to teach them so people who have to miss a week can come back when they can and keep learning.

Last semester, FaithAction offered a Korean language class, and they’ve offered other languages in the past. This summer it’s limited to English, Spanish, French and Arabic, with new classes beginning in September and new language exchange partners forming regularly.

“The classes are great because the people care about what they’re doing and it’s a non-intimidating environment and it was fun,” said board secretary-treasurer Susan Magas. “I think it’s our future as the human race, that we have to learn to appreciate the diversity and know that we

gain from it.”

This Thursday not everyone can make it to beginners French, including board chair Tom Hayes. Hayes is normally in the class with his son Morgan, who hopes the class will benefit him when he returns to school to pursue a religious studies degree, and wife Joan. When Tom retires in the next year or so, he hopes to travel with Joan and use what he’s learned.

“Our pipe dream is to go to France and rent an apartment and stay maybe for three or four weeks,” Joan Hayes said.

Working as the language program director over the past year has been a meaningful experience for Hancox, who graduated from UNCG and will begin a masters program at UNC-Chapel Hill for French literature and film in the fall.

“I don’t think I could ever go without some kind of service [after this experience],” Hancox said. “You realize that you really do have a part in your community. I love being able to use French as a tool to help people in my community.”