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Bridging languages, connecting cultures

May 10, 2010

Sihua Meng studied English in her native China, and she doesn’t have much trouble holding one-on-one conversations with people who speak English.

But get a few Americans together, and Meng is lost. “When American people talk together I can’t understand them,” she said during a recent Conversation Club at Einstein’s in the Memorial Union.

The Conversation Club, sponsored by the American English and Culture Program, is a good way for students such as Meng to start. Every Monday when ACEP is in session, year-round, the Conversation Club meets for an hour, starting at either 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. depending on the time of year, to offer ACEP students the opportunity to talk with American students.

It’s a chaotic but intense hour, with approximately 60 ACEP students mingling with 15 to 20 Americans, all talking non-stop.

On that Monday, along with Meng, students from Panama, Venezuela, Turkey, China, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Korea, Kazakhstan and Venezuela crowded into Einsteins, eating cookies, and drinking coffee and iced tea, their voices a cacophony of accents – and verbal accidents.

Their main goal is to practice speaking English, but many are hoping to extend their friendship circle as well.
Meng, who wants to study at ASU said, “I live with an American family but I want to make friends with people from all over the world.”

Victoria Serrano, from Panama, welcomed the chance to come to Conversation Club because, she said, “I live alone and I don’t have anyone to practice with.”

One of her difficulties with English, she said, is that she “doesn’t know how to end conversations.”

Jimmy Liu was here from Taiwan to practice his English for business purposes. “I learned English in Taiwan, but I don’t use it,” he said. “I work for an international organization, Campus Crusade for Christ, and they wanted me to learn to speak more fluently.”

Turki Al Sheikh, from Saudi Arabia, said he has been in the United Sates for a year, and wants to earn a business degree from ASU, so he found the Conversation Club a good opportunity to prepare for taking his classes in English.

Seulgi Le, from Korea, also said he hoped to study at ASU, and he has his eyes on the supply chain management degree.

Jimena Gazzanego, from Argentina, another prospective student, said she hopes to one day be a Sun Devil. “I want to study human resources at ASU,” she said, at ease with her English.

The American students also hope to broaden their horizons by participating in Conversation Club. Christine Collier, an ASU student majoring in Japanese, who is a regular at the gatherings, explained, “I like meeting people who are from different places. They have a different perspective.”

Going to the Conversation Club is sort of like going to a party where you don’t know anyone. “Sometimes the ACEP students are shy and ask me to introduce them to an American. I always enjoy doing that,” said Zachary Makawi, activities coordinator for ACEP.

“Other students are more passive about it – they usually expect an American to approach them. To facilitate that, I sometimes approach the Americans and bring them over to our students.”

ASU students and ACEP students who wish to develop more in-depth relationships may participate in ACEP’s Conversation Partner Program.

“This means that both parties apply, giving their contact information. From there, they’re matched according to gender (male with male and female with female to avoid any cultural misunderstandings). The goal is that these students would then meet up for language and cultural exchange, as well as friendship. Meetings are at a time and location of their choosing.”

Conversation Club has been going on for 18 years, according to Mark Rentz, director of AECP, as an “outside-class, real-world conversation opportunity for students learning English as a second language.

“Some of our students found it challenging to join regular ASU student clubs because the ASU students and ASU international students spoke English at a very high level and at a very fast speed.

“Our students wanted an opportunity to practice English, too, but in a warm and encouraging environment where everyone is at different levels of English, even at very beginning levels.”

ASU’s American students are welcome to attend the Conversation Club, Rentz added. “Their presence and their patience makes the Conversation Club so exciting and encouraging for our AECP students because our students feel like they are in the real world using real language and getting to know people who are insiders to the culture when they talk to American students.”

Students interested in attending should send an e-mail to Makawi ( for more information.
AECP has been offering intensive English as a second language instruction at ASU since 1974. For more information on ACEP, go to