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Learning from the heart

30 March 2020

More than vocabulary and grammar are shared in the English classes taken by Salvo volunteer teachers.

Going to an English class is a big step for many of those who attend the weekly sessions at Salvation Army centres. Most speak and understand little of the language and because of that find themselves isolated and unable to manage even simple everyday tasks such as shopping or appointments.

Melissa Winnell, Sydney Streetlevel Mission’s engagement coordinator, acknowledges the courage it takes to even walk through their doors.

“Many of our students have been in Australia a long time, but don’t feel comfortable to go out much because they aren’t confident to speak or understand English,” she says.

“These classes are important because not only do they help our students build skills in English, they address, in a small way, the issue of social isolation. They learn English and they make new friends.”

Salvation Army officer (minister) Esther Ong of Perth Chinese Corps (church) agrees that English classes have far-reaching benefits. The church has offered their classes for nearly 20 years and currently holds five weekly sessions for about 60 students.

“Many of our students feel helpless and isolated because they are unable to communicate in the dominant language [English],” she observes.  

“Learning English makes them feel more confident so that when they are out and about they can manage basic communication with people in public places.”

Chinese-speaking volunteers teach simple conversational English during the two-hour classes, explaining vocabulary and grammar in Mandarin — a great help to their students who are from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia. 

“Many would otherwise struggle to understand as they do not have enough basic English to comprehend the lessons,” Esther says.

The various ‘classrooms’, set up in rooms or halls, aren’t high-tech or elaborate. There are tables for students to sit around and maybe a whiteboard and computer screen or two. But in all of them the atmosphere is warm, there’s a cuppa and something tasty to eat during the mid-class break and there’s plenty of friendly conversation.

Margaret Poore, Parramatta Salvation Army (NSW) ministries coordinator, says the warm, inclusive nature of their classes gives students the confidence to “have a go”.

“We’ve been holding English Conversation Groups at Parramatta since 1992,” she says. 

“About 20 people come each Thursday and at present we have participants from Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Peru, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and Vietnam.”

Margaret works with a “wonderful volunteer crew of six helpers”. Most are retired teachers, who work from a lesson manual they have developed. After class finishes, students are invited to attend a Bible study conducted in easy-to-understand English.

“Students are also invited to other events happening within the church. From this Thursday class, a group meets for worship on Sunday mornings in an English as a Second Language setting and a Chinese discipleship group meets monthly on Saturday mornings,” Margaret says.

“We interact with our participants ‘one on one’. New friendships are developed, we laugh together, cry together as well as learn together. Our helpers love sharing conversation and experiences and feel that they, too, learn a lot from the time spent together. Certainly they appreciate the opportunity to expand their worldview through such interactions.”

Esther’s volunteer teachers also find the friendships forged in their classrooms rewarding.

“We have had students whose lives have been transformed through prayer and other help given, such as counselling, with opportunities to become a trusted person who can invite them on a journey of faith,” Esther says.

Melissa and her team at Sydney Streetlevel Mission believe a huge benefit is the sense of community that develops among the students, currently from China, Vietnam, Fiji, Korea, Russia, Albania and Brazil.

“They really look out for each other. One example of this is when a younger member of the class baked a cake and took it to an older member on Mother’s Day, knowing she wouldn’t see her family,” Melissa says. 

“It is so rewarding to see people who would not have spoken when they first arrived, become confident enough to share in class. Also it’s rewarding to hear how people feel they can engage in Streetlevel and the wider community because they feel more confident in listening, speaking and understanding English.

“We see isolation and disconnection as a hardship or injustice. Our English class transforms lives. They find a sense of belonging, safety and value through the love shown towards them from volunteers, other students and our wider Streetlevel community.” 


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