Language exchange

Local English-Spanish interchange offers education, relationships

— Mirna Luna knows why she comes to the Boys & Girls Club of Craig on Tuesday evenings, long after all the children have left and most of the building is dark.

"I want to learn English," she says.

What else keeps her coming back to English and Spanish learning group?

She pauses.

Then, she motions to JoAnn Quade, Integrated Community office assistant.

"Mi amigos," she says. "My friends."

Intercambio, a program offered through the Integrated Community organization, meets at 7 p.m. Tuesdays at the Boys & Girls Club. The program invites Spanish- and English-speaking community members to exercise their bilingual conversational skills.

Integrated Community Executive Director Summer Laws said it provides something more: relationships.

The program began in Craig just more than a year ago to encourage dialogue between English- and Spanish-speaking communities and fill a local need for adult English language education, Laws said.

Has it succeeded?

Integrated Community recently began a survey to answer that question. So far, the organization hasn't received enough completed surveys to definitively say if the program is working.

Still, Laws said she measures the program's success by the relationships it builds between English speakers and English language learners.

At a large table in the Boys & Girls Club, Quade and Luna sit alone. Shuttling an English/Spanish dictionary between them, they talk, using hand gestures and smiles to communicate what their words cannot.

English and Spanish speakers have said the program gives them a "safe place" to practice their conversational language skills, Laws said.

In Spanish, "intercambio" means "exchange" - in this case, an exchange of languages.

If English speakers want to practice conversational Spanish, they can attend the Tuesday night meetings and learn the language from a native Spanish speaker.

The only stipulation: They have to give back, teaching their instructor some English in exchange for the lesson.

"That's what we're trying to address - that both sides have needs," Laws said.

Still, the program fulfills an unmet need unique to non-English speakers.

Intercambio is the only program in Craig that teaches English as a second language to adults.

The need for this type of education is great in Craig, Laws said.

"We know that there are more non-English speakers, by population, in Craig than in Steamboat," Laws said.

A survey shows local adults have shown an interest in the English/Spanish program.

The organization conducted another survey among parents of students enrolled in Moffat County High School's English as a second language programs.

Of the 29 parents who responded, 28 said they would be interested in taking English classes.

Still, while the Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat offers ESL classes, no such classes are available in Craig.

Funding for programs like Intercambio may be harder to come by in the future.

This month, Congress is expected to pass a nearly $10 million federal funding reduction for adult literacy programs, ProLiteracy Worldwide reported.

To adjust, Integrated Community is relying on other sources of funding, including local foundations, to meet their financial needs.

Although no new sources of federal funding may be available for programs like Intercambio, learning English still is "essential" for integrating into American life, Laws said.

"It affects everything you do," she said. "It's a skill daily needed for survival."

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