New language club provides alternate approach to learning English

Aditya Thiyag | The Chronicle 

Learning a new language often consists of intense grammar and writing practice, but one club is bringing an alternate approach to teaching English.

Speakeasy is a new tutoring club at Mason High School that emphasizes conversation as a method of teaching Mason’s English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Taking place during Connect Time on Wednesdays, Speakeasy is an entirely optional route for non-native speakers to use in order to learn English. Junior and club leader Raquel Ramirez said that Speakeasy was born out of her desire for a club that encouraged English learning in a low-stress manner. 

“By providing a place to practice speaking where students don’t feel the stress of talking to a teacher or grades, they can make mistakes without fear,” Ramirez said. “Feedback is a very important part of learning a language and speaking with a peer can help ESL students learn vocabulary related to things that they are personally interested in.”

This low stress environment attracted the attention of many ESL students, one of them being senior Ziyu Li. After moving to Mason in 2018 as a native Chinese speaker, Li said that as someone who is still learning English, she believes that Speakeasy’s speech-centric approach is beneficial in creating an authentic learning experience.

“When I’m in other classes, I just do my work by myself,” Li said. “I don’t have a chance to talk to other people a lot and there are still language issues. But when I’m with the speakeasy students, I have more opportunities to practice speaking English like American people do.”

Li said that her desire to speak English “like American people” stemmed from her inability to understand native speakers “in a traditional class.” Since native speakers, according to Li, do not “speak like international students”, she said that she noticed a large language barrier that prevented her from “connecting with native English speakers”. To rectify this, Li turned to Speakeasy as a location to safely practice her English. 

Li was not alone in seeking this type of environment. Senior Ayane Watanabe is a Japanese native who joined Speakeasy to practice her speaking skills. She met Li during a Speakeasy connect session. Despite having some prior English knowledge, Watanabe said she believed that practicing her speech during Speakeasy sessions drastically improved her English skills, also crediting her newly formed friendships. 

“I learned English grammar when I was in Japan,” Watanabe said. “But when I have to speak, I struggle. But only by talking to [Li and other] friends, [did] my English skills evolve.”

Watanabe said she still struggled with speaking English after speaking to Li and other Speakeasy members, but firmly believed in its benefits.

“For me, there is no easy way to learn a second language, but I think it’s easier to learn by doing something practical,” Watanabe said.

The added benefit of forming new relationships was something Ramirez strove for when originally founding the club. In contrast to a traditional ESL classroom environment where the focus is mainly on schoolwork, Ramirez said she wanted to establish a sense of community within the school for non-native English speakers. She believed that Speakeasy’s casual atmosphere was perfect for fostering that communal feeling.

“The club is meant to be another base of support for the many diverse students who walk through the halls of Mason,” Ramirez said. “[It’s] another way to make sure that no one slips through the cracks and a place where everyone can learn. Interacting with people from other countries is an invaluable experience in and of itself.”

Speakeasy’s approach is relaxed, but it is far from disorganized. While ESL students are encouraged to chat leisurely and work on homework, tutors make rounds around the classroom to clarify language that students have difficulty with. Li and Watanabe both said this tutoring method drastically improved their English understanding.

“I was working on college stuff and [Watanabe] sat in front of me working on her homework,” Li said. “And a club member just explained the definitions of the words she struggled with and taught her to remember those words. Walking us through like that helped.”

However, Speakeasy members’ meticulous instruction is not why ESL teacher and Speakeasy advisor Lynsey Pun believes that the club has started to gain traction within the high school. Pun instead said that she saw the camaraderie forming between the members and that the club’s ability to bring people together was its primary reason for its success. 

“ESL students are dealing with the same ups and downs as other teenagers, but it can be amplified by the feelings of being culturally different from their peers,” Pun said. “Speakeasy Club is another place for students to feel safe.”

Illustration by Allison Droege