English Corner: A place to build friendship across cultures and around the world

Graduate Division

Many in the scientific world wish they could communicate better. For non-native English speakers at UCSF, language skills can be a particular challenge.

English Corner, a conversational English class that meets every Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. in Clinical Sciences (521 Parnassus Ave S-159), helps participants to develop these skills while creating a fun and engaging environment.

“English Corner has helped to improve my speaking English and listening comprehension,” said member Huixi Li.“It helps me when I want to find someone to talk to release my pressure from daily work in lab.”

The group—founded in 2009 by applied linguistics educator Dr. Deborah Karres; UCSF nursing graduate Kathy Babcock; and Dr. Chunhua Ding, former president of the Association of Chinese Student Scholars—aims to be of service and build friendship across cultures and around the world.

“We wanted to create [a club] where people would feel comfortable and open to express themselves and learn how to be in America in that little time that they are here,” said Karres.

In addition to its founders, other volunteer facilitators include English teacher Shirley Marks, social worker Nicole Muller and UCSF pharmacy graduate Dr. Hoda Iraninezhad.

All of the facilitators in English Corner are inspired by the Bahá’í  community and follow its tenet that we should all live as a one world family. They do this through discussions that stray from the typical lab fodder into bigger human issues.

“The topics make us always think deeply for some questions about life and friendship,” said member Yi Zheng. “The teachers are so friendly. We can feel like it is a big family, a home.”

In addition, the group participates in traditional American activities, such as hiking and cooking classes, and members have the opportunity to share their own cultural traditions.

“It is very interesting to know about the customs in the world,” Zheng said.

How did it start?

English Corner started out by meeting with the Association Chinese Students Scholars. Professor Chunhua Ding had a vision five years ago that if Chinese scholars did not learn English well enough they would not be competitive in the professional world. This led to a pilot program only with a small group of Chinese Scholars. The scholars started advertising in their organization, and when the International Students and Scholars Office found out about it, they started advertising for all scholars and international students.

How is it set up?

The curriculum is about learning how to enhance your use of language and powers of expressions. When reading quotes, it is not so much about if you understand the quote, it is about touching your inner thoughts and hearing other people’s views that you would not hear otherwise. Some topics are about poetry, friendship, dealing with change, music, movies. Every week there is something about an American idiom. It is more about using quotes and questions to build community. We want everyone to be contributors.

What kind of people attend?

Most people who attend are researchers. Some are practicing doctors in their home country. Anyone who wants to make a heart–heart connection and explore using English to raise their understanding of the world is welcome. The group is completely apolitical. An average 17 people come to the weekly meetings, and they estimate having had more than 500 participants in the past five years. People new to San Francisco, new to the English language, and those who feel bilingual or bicultural are all welcome.