International friends break the language barrier

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Marcos Gleizer, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a visiting fellow at Princeton this year, sat at a corner table in a local coffee shop chatting with Princeton resident Stephen Lawrence.

Marcos Gleizer (left), a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a visiting fellow at Princeton this year, and local resident Stephen Lawrence meet for coffee and conversation every week through a program run by the Friends of the International Center.


The pair meet here every Thursday morning to resume the wide-ranging conversation they have been having since October. The subject of their talks has ranged from the novels of Philip Roth to the best route for driving to Boston, with much talk of philosophy, Gleizer's area of expertise, sprinkled in.

Gleizer and Lawrence are among more than 200 participants in the one-on-one English conversation program run by the Friends of the International Center of Princeton University. The program, which has existed at Princeton for more than 35 years, matches visiting scholars and graduate students who come from other countries with local volunteers. The pairs meet weekly for informal conversation with the goal of helping improve the scholars' English.

"It's so important to have someone to talk to in the language of the country where you are," said Gleizer, who is spending the year at Princeton's philosophy department. "It's so useful to be able to talk about difficult subjects, but also just about regular life. I can tell you honestly Steve is my friend here."

And the tutors find the experience just as rewarding. "We've become pals," said Lawrence, who was head of the English department at the Princeton Day School until he retired last year. "We talk about whatever friends talk about. It's just a normal conversation where I occasionally interrupt to correct (his English). I'm having fun meeting an interesting person I wouldn't have met any other way."

In addition to their weekly coffee date, Lawrence has had Gleizer and his wife to his house for the afternoon. The two have discussed the similarities in their family backgrounds: Both men's parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. They talk about music and painting, and have tackled topics like freedom of will and determinism.

The friendships that develop between tutors and their students are enduring. Sunny Onish, who has been a volunteer with the program for eight years, is still in touch with former students from Japan, Korea and Israel. The Israeli family called Onish last month to wish her a happy Passover. The Japanese student, who was here six years ago, sends his teenage daughter to Princeton every summer to spend a week with Onish.

"It's a privilege for me to do this work," said Onish, who lives in Monroe Township and is retired from a career in the shoe business. "It looks as if we are doing the students a favor, but I think all of the tutors feel that the students are doing us a favor."

Onish is in charge of another program run by the Friends of the International Center that is mainly attended by the spouses of visiting scholars. The group conversation program, which meets twice a week, conducts informal chats in small group sessions to work on comprehension and pronunciation. About 40 students and a half dozen tutors participate. The students practice by giving short presentations on topics such as which sites a traveler should visit in their country, and what the student would do with the winnings from the lottery.

"More than anything else, we dispel the differences between cultures," Onish said.

Lasting bonds

A third program, which was started in 1960, matches visiting scholars and students with local residents who invite them and their families for dinner at their homes and take them on tours of Princeton to familiarize them with the area. Participants in the host program, which has about 70 volunteers and 75 students, usually get together once a month. The emphasis is on learning American culture, so hosts are encouraged to invite students over for holidays.

Paula Chow, director of the International Center, said lasting bonds are forged between students and volunteers in all the programs. "The students get personal attention and real friendship from the tutors and host families," she said. And the tutoring program helps students make significant strides in their English because "they feel this is a permissible place to make mistakes, and that's crucial," she said.

Tutor Irene White celebrated the Chinese New Year by dining at a local restaurant with the three Chinese students she is helping. They were reciprocating her invitation for Christmas dinner, when she served them a four-course meal that included capon, which they had never eaten before. To include her fourth student, who is from Russia, White cooked a second Christmas feast a week later for him and two of his friends.

"It's extremely enriching," White said of the time she spends with her students. "They are friends, but actually for me, because I have no relatives, they turn out to be family."

White took Xiaojin Wu, who is a graduate student in the Department of Art and Archaeology, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a lecture on the city of London. She often clips articles about art from the newspaper so she and Wu can discuss them during their weekly meetings at White's home.

Wu said she has benefited enormously from working with White for the last two years. "Now I feel like talking to people," said Wu, who is Chinese and also knows Japanese and French. "Before, because I'm kind of shy, I hesitated to talk to people. My American friends would say, 'Your English is fine' and not pick up my mistakes. Irene has helped me a lot because she will really be very honest and pick up my errors. And when I make progress, she encourages me. Talking and writing English is so essential for me."

Each week White prepares a list of idioms she gets from the radio and the newspaper, and the two review the meaning of expressions like "throw my hat in the ring" and "beg to differ." White has also worked with Wu on her writing, having her compose summaries of articles and reviewing grammar and sentence structure with her. The two went over one of Wu's grant applications, and White even helped her student decipher a professor's handwriting.

"The best thing is I have someone to rely on in case I can't catch any colleagues or friends," Wu said. "Irene is a wonderful person."

The tutors, many of whom have retired from the working world, are delighted by the opportunity to make new friends and learn about life in another country.

Observed Onish, who is 83: "Being with bright young people keeps you alive and youthful. You don't have time to worry about your aches and pains."

For more information about the Friends of the International Center, call 258-1170.

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