English corner goes beyond small talk

English corner goes beyond small talk

Karen Haworth – China

Students at the Sichuan Radio and TV University hold an English corner on Friday nights. This is a time for them to practice speaking in English with each other. When I go, they always have many questions for me about life in America. Equally, I have questions for them about life in China. Typical conversations often begin with small talk about interests and daily life. As the same students continue to come our conversations become less predictable.

Last December one student, Vicky, suddenly changed the subject. She said that some day when she is successful and has money, she’d like to travel abroad. Well, many students in China want to see the world. But she wants to visit “poor countries and give money to help the people.” “I want to be a volunteer,” she said.

So our discussion turned to the following questions: How can we be volunteers? What organizations can help volunteers? How can we best respond to people’s needs? How can we make a difference as a volunteer? I shared some about volunteering in America and my own experiences as a volunteer. I wanted to know more about volunteering in China. Is there a Chinese organization, like the Peace Corps, that sends people abroad? I suggested that if the students didn’t know of such an organization, someday they could start their own.

I also wanted to know more about the students’ experiences with volunteering in their own communities. There are just as many needs close to home as there are abroad. Vicky had only dropped money in donation boxes on the street, because she didn’t know what else to do. Another student, Jane, had given donations to poor students at a school where she worked. But there was no way for them to see the effects of their giving.

To challenge the students, I asked: “Why wait for the future? What can you do here and now to make a difference?” Despite the hesitations of some, enthusiasm for doing something grew. By the end of the English corner, seven students had organized a volunteer committee and had started planning projects. While they made most plans in Chinese, they also asked questions and shared ideas in English—no longer just practicing the language, but using it for a real purpose.

Within two weeks, they made connections with an old people’s home for Muslims, and arranged a visit. The volunteer committee got support from the school administration and advertised the activity among their classmates. On the day of the visit, at least 15 students showed up. They shared their gifts—some cleaned, while others conversed with residents. Some sang, danced or played instruments for entertainment. Before an hour had passed, the residents were already expressing a desire for the students to visit them again.

Most students there, as here, want to find a good job and earn money to improve their standard of living. But just one student sharing her goal of using money to help people led students to realize they could give more than just money. They could make a difference in people’s lives in small ways. In addition, volunteering can make a difference in their lives, giving them opportunities to learn about their community, to meet new people and to gain leadership skills. Students can also discover how to work through problems and obstacles together.

Now the volunteer committee wants to do more activities in the community and involve more of their classmates. Perhaps they can also connect with some of the university’s projects in the rural areas of Sichuan, as an experience of reaching out beyond their locale. I look forward to sharing in discussions in English corner and volunteering adventures that may develop.


Karen Haworth

Karen Haworth works at the Sichuan TV and Radio University in Chengdu, China. She serves as an English teacher.