What is it like to volunteer at STAR Conversation Club?
This was my first experience at a Conversation Club with STAR – finally getting over the pathetic millennial excuse of ‘having no time’. I always had the preconception that in England there just aren’t that many ways to help refugees and migrants, after being surrounded by ways to help in Berlin, but it’s just about being more pro-active. And really, STAR is just on my/our doorstep! The session was a special case, as I later heard, because there were actually more volunteers than participants, which I initially thought would be strange but it just meant that I also had a chance to get to know some other volunteers. I even met a familiar face from a seminar in my first year.
In one of the activities the participants were to read a story, answer some questions about it and then retell it in their own words. I was having a conversation with a woman who wasn’t quite sure of some of the words and, rather embarrassedly, I found myself acting out a story about a policeman telling a man off for walking their lion in the park. Thank goodness I study theatre… At first, I thought it was foolish but actually it proved to be extremely helpful. Not being trained teachers, I think it’s important that we do use gestures and mime. Role-plays in particular are vital to the learning process and are probably the easiest way to introduce activities and better understanding. What differs between a conversation club and an English lesson is that it really is about being practical; it’s about practicing things one really needs to be able to know in another country. I thought back on all my language lessons when I was younger and how they may teach you the past-perfect-whatever but when it comes to getting by in a social situation you’re clutching at straws. These clubs are so important because many of the participants won’t have other opportunities to speak English casually to native speakers, and more importantly it creates an environment where it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake because volunteers are more than happy to correct and help. Really, the sessions are about making some else’s life easier in a country that is unfamiliar to them and I think this is invaluable, as I imagine we would all want the same if we had to leave our country to unfamiliar lands.
What struck me most is that the session was filled with humour and happiness. It’s easy to forget that sharing languages, stories and cultures can fill you with an immense joy and remind you of all the good things in the world, rather than the bad ones. I even learned a few words in Arabic and a little bit about Syrian cuisine. I think the opportunity for culture exchange is so important and uplifting in times of crises – to see just how much we can learn from one another if we just listen and engage in conversation. It’s an experience that goes both ways and I will definitely come back as often as I can. The woman who had to endure my terrible impressions of walking a lion described the session as ‘beautiful’ and I entirely agree.
Written by Stella von Koskull