Northborough Library offers ‘Conversation Circles’ for non-English speakers


By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor

Participants in a recent Conversation Circle at the Northborough Free Library  Photo/Bonnie Adams
Participants in a recent Conversation Circle at the Northborough Free Library
Photo/Bonnie Adams

Northborough – On a recent evening, Marcia Waldman, an art teacher at the Marguerite E. Peaslee Elementary School met with a small group at the Northborough Free Library to lead an informal discussion about art. But in reality, art was not the main focus of the night’s meeting. Rather, Waldman was a special guest at an English Conversation Circle, an informal group meetings for adults who want to improve their conversational English.

Librarian Deborah Hersh oversees the program, which meets twice a week at the library. The one-hour group meetings benefit English-language learners by providing a structured forum for purposeful and relevant discussion, and an opportunity to meet with other English-language learners who are facing the same challenges, she said.

“It is very friendly and nonthreatening,” she said. “Some can speak English but not read it. But no matter where you are in your [English] skills, we will partner with you at your level.”

A program has been held at the Northborough Senior Center as a way to help the influx of older Chinese immigrants who had moved to the town. But it was one woman in particular who came to the library weekly that helped to inspire the library to start a program there, Hersh said.

“She would just communicate by pantomiming,” Hersh said. “It made us aware that people can sometimes feel invisible.”

Following the model of programs already established at the Shrewsbury and Marlborough libraries, Hersh applied for and received a grant for federal funds provided by the Institute on Museum and Library Services, which are administered through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

The Conversation Circle meetings are designed to complement more formal ESL classroom instruction or one-on-one tutoring, Hersh said.

The circles are led by volunteers, all of whom have undergone literacy training. Joining Margie Hurwitz, the lead volunteer and curriculum director, is Nisha Vora, Valerie Kennedy and Jane O’Toole.

The size of the circle may vary but normally ranges from four to 10 participants. Depending on the class size, the group may also break into smaller groups during the session. The ability to understand English also ranges among the participants, Hersh said. Many hail from Central America with others originally coming from China, India, Russia and Eastern Europe.

“Some people immigrated here to live while others may have come because their spouse moved here for a job,” she said.

It is her hope, she added, that the word will spread to those who know about the program will share the information about it with those who could benefit from it.

Throughout the hour-long class, the volunteers help engage the students in practical, everyday conversations discussing such things as life and customs in the United States, current events and basic day-to-day experiences.

Special guests also help from time to time as well. The evening that Waldman met with the group, she hung a large reproduction of the Pierre Renoir painting “Two Girls at the Piano” on the wall. As she pointed out different parts of the painting, she and the group discussed the different elements such as items, colors and expressions.

Classes are held Tuesday evenings from 6:30-7:30 p.m. and Thursday mornings from 10-11 a.m. There is no required pre-registration; participants may drop in as often as their schedule allows.

Contact Hersh at 508-393-5025, ext. 5, or email [email protected] for more information, specific dates or to volunteer.

More information on the program and links to other resources can be found by visiting