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English-Spanish Exchange creates a place for questions and opportunities

Posted by Laura Gomez  April 11, 2013 03:44 PM

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Lauren Moquin for
Nancy Murphy, Jo Orosz, Jerry Rodgers, Rosemary Jones, Jose Coca, and Minerva Martinez meet every Saturday afternoon at the Connolly Branch Library for English-Spanish Exchange.

By Lauren Moquin, Globe Correspondent

A group of adults goes down to the basement of Jamaica Plain’s Connolly Branch Library on Saturday afternoons to share their native language and learn another’s.

Attendees come for various reasons, including new job opportunities, the ability to communicate with clients, or the ability to talk with more people in the community.

For Jose Coca, this weekly English-Spanish Exchange helps bring him one step closer to a better life in both the U.S, where he has lived for 16 years, and in his home country of Honduras.

“I want to improve my English for a better job. I came here for better opportunities to make money for my kids in Honduras to go to university. Now, they are almost done and I can go back to my country,” Coca said.

Although Coca plans on returning to Honduras soon, he stays enthusiastic about continuing his English and aiding others in developing their Spanish. Throughout the Exchange he strives to get everyone to participate and keep their spirits up.

As native English speaker Jerry Rodgers tried to get grasp of a common Spanish word, Coca smiled and sounded out “goose.” Rodgers clenched his fists, smirked at Coca and shouted, “GOOSE-TOH.” Everyone around the table laughed with delight — Rogers got it right.

Rodgers has come to improve his Spanish to communicate with his clients at his Jamaica Plain funeral home, Mann & Rodgers.

“I want to have everyday conversation. I have two employees at the funeral home who speak Spanish, but I want to learn myself,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers beamed as he went back to trying to engage in Spanish conversation. As the 45 minutes of Spanish came to its end and the 45 minutes of English began, a sense of accomplishment was obvious on his and the other three native English speakers’ faces.

When the group broke into English, Minerva Martinez spoke of how nervous she was for her 12-year-old daughter’s dentist appointment following the Exchange. With interest in both Martinez’s concerns and aiding Martinez, retired social worker Rosemary Jones eased the way in finding the words.

“Just so you know, when a word is plural in English, the ‘s’ sound makes a big difference,” Jones said.

“Daughters,” Martinez said.

The group cheered and went on to talk about the difficulties of the English language, between accents and homonyms.

“‘Bye’ and ‘by’? English is crazy!” native English speaker Jo Orosz said.

This safe zone for questions and friendly conversation came to be when Spanish and ESL teacher Ingrid Roche proposed the idea to the Connolly Branch Library librarian Amy Manson. When Roche lived in Jamaica Plain, she participated in a monthly Spanish book group offered by the library, but she found it hard to keep up with the reading and it seemed as though other members did not have the time to complete readings either.

Roche had done one-on-one exchanges before, through Craigslist, and saw great opportunity in the Connolly Branch Library because of its location in Jamaica Plain.

“I always felt that there was not a tolerance for other cultures in JP, but rather, an appreciation,” Roche said.

When Roche brought the idea of the free English-Spanish Exchange to Manson, Manson went on to advertise the weekly sessions.

“With the idea in mind and advertising the event, the group created itself. It started with four to six people each week,” Roche said.

Roche has been living in Brookline for five years and has found herself too busy to come to the Exchange, but she reflects, “For me, it’s just a symbol that specific locations in JP can be such a bilingual place where people can appreciate each other.”

As the Exchange is continually advertised by Manson and attracts a solid group each week, Manson says, “It’s just a really generous thing to do, when people share knowledge like this.”

The group has continued to stand strong in the Connolly Branch Library with no true leader, but just advertising through library fliers and the willingness to share.

“I used to work with fish,” Coca gestured and squinted with confusion at the group that he had shared his life with, over sessions.

“Smoked,” Martinez said.

“I used to smoke fish,” Coca said, “but I have realized that I need better English for better opportunities.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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