English Café in Southwest Florida: where English conversation is on the menu

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Conversation. The best way to learn a language. Making mistakes is part of the process.

With all the 24-hour cable news channels and news blogs reporting on the seemingly never-ending immigration debate with a side of bitter polarity, you would think the United States is chock full of folks who don’t want to learn the language, and another group demanding they learn it somehow– and fast!

Well, that’s just not true.

Take the “English Café” at the Lee County Library in Fort Myers, in Southwest Florida. This is a program where non-natives with little (very basic) command of English spend 90-minutes chatting with English as a Second Language volunteers. They also read English-language newspapers. Best part? The service is free, participants may start at any time, and advance registration is not required.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. Back then, my dad was able to get a job at a factory, and it was survival of the fittest. If he didn’t know English, he wouldn’t be able to fully understand his boss or communicate with his coworkers. He muddled along picking up scraps by watching television shows and movies. (Lots of westerns, ‘pilgrim.’) But it was rudimentary at best.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and he was able to get a much better job as a machinist at the General Electric plant in Paterson, N.J., a very urban area where most of the workers at this General Electric plant he was working at were working class white or African American. His English had to improve because this was a job he wanted to keep.

So how did he learn? By speaking with us (he often asked us to respond to him in English so he’d get it), and talking with his (mostly) African American coworkers as they worked side-by-side with him. As a result, his English was hip! He would actually get home and say, “What it is?” Ha!

In today’s Internet-addicted world, my father’s scenario would be much tougher. And that’s why programs like English Café are a treasure.

There are many programs like it across the country. But unless one is very involved in local news and services, they may not know such opportunities exist. This is why I’m glad Univision Southwest Florida program, D’Latinos Al Día, reported on English Café. Watch the report below.

(Bonus fact: my aunt is a participant. A recent widow, she’s learning to do more on her own, and as she says at minute 1:33, she feels more equipped to speak English thanks to this “marvelous program.”) 

For more information on Lee County’s English Café, visit the library’s website.

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A word about demographics and missed opportunities

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Screen shot of the sad and lonely Spanish-language option by me.

I don’t purport to know very much about running a business. Aside from deciding whether I want to take on public relations work on a by-project basis, I’ve never run my own shop.

But I can safely say that Great American Opportunities, a fundraising corporation, has dropped the ball on an additional “opportunity” for their constituents to make more money.

Back in my day, for grammar schools to raise funds, students had to sell chocolates or Christmas wrapping paper. Today, with the power of the Internet, you can imagine those opportunities have become more diverse.

My cousin’s son’s school in Florida is raising funds by using Great American Opportunities to sell magazine subscriptions. It’s much simpler now. Parents forward a link and we help raise funds by shopping.

Or so I thought.

I’m in media relations. I don’t want for many magazine or newspaper subscriptions. I have plenty and they are all digital. So I figure, I’ll shop for my parents.

My folks are Colombian immigrants and American citizens who have been living in this country for more than 40 years. Yet Spanish is still their first and preferred [reading] language. They’re senior citizens, why wouldn’t they enjoy a subscription?

Sadly, the only Spanish-language magazine Great American Opportunities offers is People en Español. No offense to the celebrity magazine industry, but my parents have no interest in who J-Lo is dating. (Well, maybe if she finally moves UP in age of the person she’s dating. Just kidding!)

Has Great American Opportunities not looked into changing demographics of this country, especially in Florida? There are a TON of Hispanics/Latinos in the United States and they are a huge buying power. The more Latino-friendly products a business offers to the Latino community, the more they will buy. (Take a hint from the many corporations that advertise and offer circulars in Spanish.)

And that, mi amigos, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity for Great American Opportunities.

In case you’re wondering, I *did* buy a subscription to help my cousin’s son’s grammar school. I bought an interesting-looking health/neuroscience magazine, but certainly would have purchased much more had there been more than one entertainment-based, Spanish-language option.

Perhaps this is something Great American Opportunities can consider in the future. After all, many of Spanish-language readers and speakers are shopping in America!