JoEllen M. Simpson email@example.com
Carlos E. Ossa firstname.lastname@example.org
Frank Rutter email@example.com
Universidad del Valle
Escuela de Ciencias del Lenguaje
Finding opportunities to speak English in a country which does not have English as its native language can be difficult for the language student. It was because of this need for an English-speaking environment that the English Conversation Club (ECC) was initiated at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. The club started in 1992, and has been going strong ever since under the leadership of professor Carlos E. Ossa. The following report is a summary of several years of questionnaires given to new members and visitors to the club, and the object of this report is to suggest ways in which other university communities can better serve their English-speaking populations by the creation of a similar English conversation club.
The ECC began holding its meetings on September 18, 1992. It stemmed from the founder's involvement in the COFE Project (Colombian Framework of English, a joint project of the British and Colombian governments). This Project was designed to improve the quality of professors and teachers of English from universities offering EFL programs. The founder of the club had the chance to travel to London's Thames Valley University under a grant by the COFE Project, and the idea for the ECC was born.
From its very beginning, the ECC has attempted to offer the university community a space where students, professors, and staff can participate in a variety of informal activities in a relaxed atmosphere. The main goals are to have fun and to improve the members' knowledge of English. During the meetings, the members share experiences in an autonomous and spontaneous way, without the fear of being evaluated, as no grades are administered.
Initially, the ECC was planned to meet every other week, but after the second meeting, the members urged the founder to meet weekly. So from that time on, the ECC has met every Friday (except for holidays) from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, where an average of 25 members get together to enjoy the expected and the unexpected. The three authors of this article plan weekly activities that focus on all skills of language learning. In addition to these weekly activities, there are frequent visitors. Through various contacts, including electronic mail and our home page on the World Wide Web (http://mafalda.univalle.edu.co/~carlossa), many people find out about our club and come to the meetings when they are in Cali. We have had a Spanish teacher from the United States visit us for several weeks during his vacation in Cali, we have had "home stay families" (families which hosted Colombian students studying at universities abroad) visit us during their vacations in Colombia, and most frequently, we receive visits from English speaking foreigners who are living, working and raising families in Cali.
There is also a special activity every semester, called the Total
Immersion Journey (TIJ). One weekend of each semester is selected
for traveling with a small group of members to a camping area near Cali.
During this weekend, from the time the members board the bus to leave to
the time they come back and say "goodbye", they must speak in English.
An average of 15 to 17 members go on these TIJ trips, all of them remember
happy times and a sense of improvement in English.
The ECC was created to provide a space for students from the Modern Languages Department of our university to practice the four skills, but specifically speaking, in English. According to the questionnaires from the first year and a half, there were twenty different students who came from the Modern Languages Department, and in more recent years, an additional eleven students have visited the club from there. During these same years, a total of 96 students from other departments (mainly biology, medicine, psychology, and social communication) visited the club. So, although the club was created for the Modern Language students, to give them additional space for stress-free practice of English, other students from other departments have shown much more interest in the club's activities. Interestingly, in addition to the students who have come to the club, a number of professionals, either from the university or outside of the university, have become regular members.
This high number of students makes it look as if the club meetings
are very large, with more than 100 members, but, in fact, there is a group
of about 10 members who come every week, and another group of about 20
who come two to three times a month. This core group, plus new weekly
members (or visitors), keep the total weekly number at about 25 to 30.
What do the questionnaires tell us?
The new-member questionnaire is given to any new face that appears at the ECC meetings. There are a number of questions asking each individual to explain what they expect from their time spent in the club and what preferences and desires they have for improving it.
The first question asks individuals about their expectations of the club. The overwhelming majority say that they come to practice English, to improve their English, or even to learn English. (Although most who come have at least a beginner's knowledge, there are some who come under the assumption that it is a "class," and that they will be "taught" English systematically. These are frequently visitors who do not return to future meetings, due to the more advanced level of the majority of the members.) Another important expectation is to meet new people. Only a small number of people list having fun as a primary expectation, even though one of the goals of the organizers is to make the meetings as diverse and entertaining as possible.
There are several questions which address the problem of suggestions or desires for activities in club meetings. A popular suggestion has been game playing, and some specific examples are charades, word problems, and guessing games. Songs and acting (drama) are also popular with newcomers. Although most of the suggestions are positive, probably reflecting experiences members have had in regular English classes, there are occasional negative comments. For example, one person suggested that fewer members be allowed into the club (surely this comment came from one of the days when more than 60 people showed up for the club to share the club's birthday and birthday cake), and another suggested that the club not meet in a classroom on campus, but rather meet outside in a less formal environment.
When asked what they could do as regularly attending members to "contribute to the success of the club," most suggested attending regularly and inviting new people, which is actually what happens with the regulars. They frequently bring friends and tell other people about the club in hopes that they will attend. Others volunteer to give lectures or talks about their areas of study or work, but in fact, few go beyond their written offer and actually speak to the group. A number of students also volunteer to bring music or even games to the club, but again, very few actually fulfil their "promises."
Because of the transitory nature of many visitors (they attend once and never return), the current school year saw changes in the questionnaire. One new question was added, asking new members what would guarantee their continued attendance. The most popular responses were: singing, lectures, movies, and games. It is interesting to note that there is always a new song and at least one new language game. There are frequent lectures, and the companion Movie Lovers Club meets once a week, but with low attendance. (The schedule, however, has been changed in the hope of improving attendance. Instead of meeting on a different day than the regular meetings, the movie club now will meet immediately after the ECC meetings. It is hoped that there will now be an increase in the number of members at the movies.)
What do we suggest to other clubs?
Based on our experience with the ECC at the Universidad del Valle, we can say that the idea of the English language club is very popular with the members. Although there are a number of people who come only once, there are also regular additions to the group of core members, insuring a slow, but steadily increasing membership.
One very important suggestion is to have a coordinator who is very enthusiastic and willing to put a lot of time into the management and promotion of the club. The start of any club like this is slow, and a persevering coordinator will help to advance the club and make it a regular feature of your school. One of the biggest successes we have had for increasing membership is the annual birthday party. In addition to the regular activities, we serve cake and soft drinks to anyone who comes on the birthday meeting. As can be imagined, the number of "members" increases drastically during the entire month of the birthday party.
To close, we give you the ECC theme song, which was written by Dr. Frank Rutter, based on phrases and sentences written by club members with music also composed by club members. We generally start or end each club meeting with this song, which is very popular among the members.
YOU AND ME AND THE ECC
Come and practice at the ECC
To see what fun English can be.
Come on now and bring a friend,
No better way the week can end!
Come to be with us and see
How we can talk, yes you and me.
How much better will our English be;
Don't miss this opportunity.
We love our club, the ECC.
Its fun and its variety,
And all we do, the games we play,
The music and the speeches, Hey!
At the end of a long hard week
We have a place to go and speak.
And in English you will see
How you make friends so pleasantly.