In West Lebanon, discussion builds a bridge of words

  • The Talking Bridge English conversation group formed in March 2018 and is celebrating one year helping non-native speakers improve their language skills at Kilton Library in West Lebanon, N.H., Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. The talk was diverted from the prescribed subject of game shows to driving and health care in Brazil where Diana Oliveiro, second from left, worked as a nurse. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • After introductions around the circle of over 25 participants at the Talking Bridge English conversation group, small groups formed to talk about the subject of game shows prompted by questions and vocabulary words on a handout at the Kilton Libarary in West Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Feb.5, 2019. Participants were a mix of non-native English speakers, former language teachers, and people interested in helping others improve their language skills. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Yujiao Zhang, who has lived in Hanover for one month, second from right, talks with, from left, group co-founder Marsha Stern, of Bellows Falls, Eric Posmentier, of West Lebanon, and Denis Bassett, of White River Junction, during the Talking Bridge English conversation group at Kilton Library in West Lebanon, N.H., Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Sonia De Araujo, of West Lebanon, left, says Happy Birthday to Talking Bridge founder Maria Ortiz, of Lebanon, right, before leaving the English conversation group for the night at the Kilton Library in West Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. De Araujo moved to the Upper Valley from Brazil one year ago, and Ortiz, a librarian at Kilton, is originally from Colombia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/11/2019 10:00:19 PM
Modified: 2/11/2019 10:00:23 PM

The conversations, like most conversations, wandered where they would, so that if you were to arrive a little late, you’d have a hard time guessing their connection.

Jumping off from the word “champion,” one group was discussing the Super Bowl and the strange rules of American football. Another group was comparing stories of driver’s licensing tests, while a third group talked about Korean restaurants in the Upper Valley and words that trip up language learners. In a separate room, a fill-in-the-correct-preposition worksheet had brows crinkling.

Everyone, however, was accomplishing a simple, common goal, a goal of utmost importance to the 20-some people with roots in at least seven different countries who had gathered in the community room of the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon. They were talking.

An English conversation group that meets every Monday evening at the library, the Talking Bridge, as the name implies, uses the ordinary act of talking to connect English language learners to their community. Those connections were evident last Monday night, as learners and volunteers swapped ideas, problems and stories, played games and shared a chocolate cake to celebrate two birthdays and the group’s one-year anniversary.

“We feel that the most important contribution we make is to bring people together,” said Marsha Stern, one of the leaders of the Talking Bridge. “We really fill a gap.”

The Talking Bridge, one of many such groups that meet in libraries around the country, began to take shape in 2017, following a series of meetings organized by area faith-based organizations interested in supporting the immigrant population.

Lebanon is home to a relatively small number of non-native English-language-learners compared with national averages, but is more diverse than many towns in the region. According to U.S. Census data, about 11 percent of the population is foreign born and about 14 percent of the adult population speaks a language other than English in the home.

Maria Ortiz is part of that often unseen group. In 2000, she emigrated from Colombia to Lebanon, where she now lives with her husband. In her early days here, she struggled with feelings of loneliness and helplessness.

“I didn’t speak English at all,” she said. “I was feeling like I was in a prison.”

She remembers clearly the day she went to the Lebanon Public Library to get a library card. “They were so kind and compassionate and considerate,” said Ortiz, who was so grateful that she arranged to work as a volunteer at the library. After a year, she got a paying job as a part-time librarian.

Ortiz shared her story at one of the community meetings on immigration. Judith Bush, a therapist and former social worker who lives in Lebanon, sought her out at the library afterward and the two began discussing ways they could assist immigrants. Marsha Stern, a former teacher who lives in Bellows Falls, Vt., and longtime friend of Bush, got involved as the group began to take shape.

The key goal was to find a way to complement what other groups were doing rather than duplicate it. After meeting with people who were working more formally with non-native speakers in public schools and adult education centers, the organizers decided to start an informal conversation group — open to everyone, flexible enough to meet a variety of needs and firmly focused on friendship.

After settling on a name, putting up posters and seeking referrals from area organizations, the organizers held their first meeting last winter, with 37 people in attendance.

Almost immediately, a community was born. Along with facilitating the kinds of authentic language experiences that advance learning, the meetings have served many purposes to many people. Leaders and volunteers help assess the learners’ readiness for job and school opportunities, assist them with everyday language-related tasks and answer questions about culture.

The meetings also have served to connect learners with volunteers willing to provide them additional English tutoring. And social events including potluck dinners, cookie swaps, field trips and gardening projects in the community gardens behind the library have cemented the group’s bonds.

“I feel a big hug here,” said Sonia De Araujo, who moved to West Lebanon from Brazil a year ago with her husband, an engineer for Fujifilm Dimatix in Lebanon. “When I came here I don’t speak with anyone. Now I do.”

Over the course of the year, the Talking Bridge has hosted learners from at least 17 different countries, including Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, Korea and India. Some are students or spouses of students; others have come here to work in local businesses or followed a family member to the area. Many have become regular attendees, while others come and go as their schedules and needs change. Sometimes children tag along; volunteers take turns tending to them from week to week.

Volunteers, many of whom are retired or semi-retired, often outnumber learners.

“It feels like a grassroots thing that you can do to help with this immigration issue,” said Lonnie Larrow, a retired community health nurse who lives in Norwich and volunteers regularly at Talking Bridge meetings. “It’s something simple that I can do ... I can speak English.”

Meetings usually begin with introductions and an ice-breaker question, after which participants break into groups of four or five and chat, using a list of related vocabulary words and discussion questions, then come back together again at the end for a game or activity. Last week, after the small-group sessions, Stern led the gathering in a homemade version of Jeopardy!, with categories including holidays, Upper Valley and “ourselves.”

Then, cake.

The sugar high wasn’t needed to fuel Yuri Tsukamoto’s enthusiasm. Coming here from Japan in August with her husband, a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College, Tsukamoto was thrilled to find a place where she could practice English for free. “It’s a very good opportunity for me,” she said. “In Japan we have to pay to have conversations.”

Though attendance fluctuates, the group continues to grow. And other groups that work with English learners have begun to refer people to the meetings and include the leaders in their networking. Recently, the Talking Bridge was invited to participate in a film screening about immigrants taking place in March.

Seeing the group flourish heartens Ortiz, who remembers feeling very emotional during the first few meetings, interacting with people who were so much like her when she arrived here.

“I just want to give back everything that I received here,” she said. “It’s about the love that we have as a community.”

The Talking Bridge meets in the community room of the Kilton Library every Monday from 5 to 6:15 p.m., except when the library is closed. For more information, email

Sarah Earle can be reached at and 603-727-3268.

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