May-June 2020

A new chapter

How the library in downtown Bethesda is staying relevant in the age of e-books, smartphones and Alexa

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Photo by Thomas Goertel

On a Wednesday afternoon in September, an Italian man and three women—Chinese, French and Turkish—are sitting around a conference room table at downtown Bethesda’s public library discussing the finer points of camping. As unlikely as it may sound, it’s actually just another weekly meeting of the English Conversation Club, which brings together local residents from other countries who want to improve their command of English and knowledge of American social customs.

“Do you know what an RV is?” asks Alicia Tompkins, the group’s facilitator, as she reads from a prompt sheet containing questions for today’s topic. “Have you ever used one to go camping? Does it really seem like camping to you?”
Arzu, the Turkish woman wearing a head scarf, is drawing a blank, but Gerrardo, the Italian, says he’s been in an RV, but never actually gone camping. Amelie chimes in that the French are au courant with the RV. “I don’t drive,” says Martha from Hong Kong. Tompkins takes them through the list of prompts until they hit a showstopper.

“Do you know what glamping is?” she asks. Giggles all around. Glamping, or glamorous camping, strikes them as an oxymoron, as well as a foreign notion.

Occasional bursts of laughter come from the eight tables, each staffed with a facilitator for the four to six “students” who are refining—or sometimes maligning—English-language conversations. Tompkins, a library volunteer, worked overseas during her career in communications at the Department of Defense.

“So I know what it’s like to be living in a place where you don’t speak the language and are feeling a bit isolated,” she says.
Prompt sheets are devoted to a single topic, from famous American holidays such as the Fourth of July to hard-to-explain traditions like Groundhog Day. “We don’t correct pronunciation or grammar—we want to keep the conversation going,” Tompkins says.

For almost all of the students, it’s as much about networking as nuance. “This is how I made friends—and my conversation improved,” says Midori Unten, who is from Okinawa, Japan. Three years ago she arrived with her husband, a government official, with little English and a lot of trepidation. “Everything was a shock,” she says. “I watched TV to learn: Oprah, Dr. Phil and The View.” She heard about the conversation club after taking an English class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Now she’s become a leader among the students. “After class, we all go to La Madeleine cafe,” she says. “Sometimes I invite classmates to my apartment and we cook. I showed them how to make soba noodles, but they couldn’t learn how to slurp them!”