Conversation circles helpful for newcomers

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Learning English as a second language can be tough, but having regular conversations can help.


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The YMCA Employment and Immigrant Services holds weekly conversation circles in Hamilton, Brantford, Simcoe, Dunnville, and Port Dover.

The Simcoe meetings are held in the Norfolk County Public Library on Monday nights and Friday mornings and are geared towards permanent residents and convention refugees.

“I have seen people even attending just once a week have their English language go up,” said Azra Chaudhry, community connections coordinator with the YMCA. “They focus on their spoken English and their listening.”

Maria Marquez, previously an attendee of the program and now a volunteer, has been in Canada for nine years.

“I started meeting people from other countries that had just arrived and we connected,” said Marquez. “I came a couple of times, not because I needed help with my English, but because I wanted to meet new people.”

Marquez has been volunteering with the group now for almost two years. Coming from the experience of an immigrant herself, Marquez is able to help the newcomers learn customs that others may take for granted.

Chaudhry explained that it helps having volunteers with different backgrounds because there are multiple different languages being represented around the circle.

“It’s amazing how they grasp English without even noticing it,” said Marquez. “At first they come and they only listen, and then eventually they start participating and I make them talk. It doesn’t matter if they can tell me full words. Now the ones that started coming at the very beginning are helping me.”


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Rabaa Alheimed, one of the current attendees of the program, has been in Canada for three and a half years.

Alheimed has been attending the circles for three years and believes her English has improved.

“Somebody comes to my house to teach me, and after one year here in Canada I started attending school in Brantford,” said Alheimed.

“It’s good, everything is good,” she added about her experience in Canada as a whole.

Currently the closest English as a second language classes are held in Brantford, so it requires a lot of travel for official classes. Free conversation circles within the community help close the gap.

“I come to the meetings once a month to monitor the group. I talk to newcomers and I can see how quickly they are starting to understand, and understanding is the first step to them speaking,” said Chaudhry.

Sessions are held at the Simcoe branch on Mondays from 6 to 7 p.m. and Fridays from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

The conversation circles are only able to run because of volunteers and donated spaces. Each meeting needs two volunteers to help guide the conversations. The group is always looking for volunteers, especially for the Friday morning program.

“Volunteers are a very, very important part of our program,” said Chaudhry. “We absolutely cannot do it without volunteers.”

YMCA is also looking for volunteers with their Canada Connects program. This program connects long-term Canadians with newcomers to help provide insights into the customs, culture, social, political and economic contexts of their new community.

For more information on either program contact Chaudhry at

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