“When I was your age, when I was a student in the GDR, I got to travel to Yugoslavia to learn the language, and that’s how I began working as a translator. I translated children’s books, from German to Serbo-Croatian, and the other way round. It’s important that you see the world. It is good that you want to travel, that you travelled to go to university. It is good that you have plans to travel when Corona is over.” The woman adjusted her mask, the smile behind it reflecting in her eyes. “That’s one of the reasons I want to improve my English, there are so many things which are now in English in Germany, and so many people in Berlin who speak English but not German, and I cannot always help tourists and people if they ask me for directions, which is very… frustrating for me.” The other attendees nodded in agreement around the community centre table, under the warm glow of a hanging lamp. Our conversation topic this week was travel, including places we would like to go to and places we’ve been to before, and our participants had some interesting stories to tell.
English Hour is a volunteer project led by BCB students, which offers free, hour-long English conversation sessions twice a week to the community in Pankow, allowing our campus neighbours to openly practice speaking English with a group of both native and non-native English speakers.This project has been running for several years now, in various shapes and forms. Over the past year I have had the pleasure of watching English Hour at BCB grow and flourish; expanding rapidly from a team of four students (including myself) leading weekly meetings at a community centre in Pankow during my first semester, and powering through the lockdown on Zoom with the help of two very dedicated students. Now there is currently a group of 13 students who run multiple weekly “English Hours”, both at the community centre and on campus, offering not only conversation practice, but also English tutoring, as well as running one-off sessions in Berlin secondary schools.
With Civic Engagement being an active element of life at BCB, I believe one of the reasons for English Hour’s growth and endurance is that it provides a direct way for students to connect to the surrounding community in Pankow and Niederschönhausen. As a residential university campus surrounded by mainly suburban, familial homes, BCB can at times look and feel like a bubble. English Hour allows BCB students to burst this bubble, by directly inviting our neighbours into the BCB community, and building relationships with them through sharing their English skills and personal experiences through conversation. It brings together all kinds of members of the student body who may otherwise have fewer opportunities for interaction, as the team includes BA students from all four years, as well as transfer and exchange students. Many of the volunteers speak other languages alongside English, so they are also able to empathize and relate to the people attending conversation practice, as they have first hand experience with learning English as a second language. When interviewed about participating in English Hour, one volunteer said “When I think of English Hour, I think of how nice and open the community around us is… I love sharing my passions with others from all ages and all backgrounds.”
People come to English Hour for all kinds of reasons; from senior Germans looking for a new activity to keep themselves sharp, to middle schoolers seeking homework help. It’s this diversity of people which makes each meeting unique and unpredictable, as you never know where a conversation will flow. For example, one evening we discussed our favourite places in Berlin, which led to a conversation about cinemas and films in German and English, and the release of the sci-fi film adaptation of Dune. This then developed into opinions on fantasy books that should or should not have been turned into films. People started talking about their favourite books, and what they thought of as “classics”, such as Lord of the Rings, and some that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered, such as the Percy Jackson series. I then proceeded to have an excellent conversation with a woman about the book “Solaris” by Polish science fiction author Stanisław Lem, and the films which followed. Whilst I had been introduced to it as a classic science fiction novel, the woman I was speaking with remembered when the book was first published in the 60s, and later saw the Soviet film when it was first released in the early 70s. She found it wonderful that almost 60 years later young people were still reading the same kind of fiction she and her friends were reading at the same age. We connected over how I had got to now experience that same kind of joy and excitement reading and watching Solaris that she had experienced decades ago, despite the time and the changes in the world that have happened in between. This is just one example of how leading English Hour conversations has given me the privilege of hearing fragments of peoples’ lives.
Over time, people’s confidence, trust, and conversation skills blossom, and there is a sense of warmth in our exchanges, particularly as some participants have been attending for over a year. It’s shown me new perspectives on language and communication, as the ability to speak English fluently is something I had previously taken for granted. When I first started attending meetings, I soon realised I had to be more conscious with my speed, pronunciation and word choice when I spoke, to ensure I didn’t exclude or confuse any of the participants, as my lack of German fluency meant I couldn’t explain myself clearly in a language they would understand. I had to learn to hear myself as someone who didn’t speak English, as initially, even words and phrases which I thought of as simple and understandable proved to cause some confusion. It has made me more considerate of how I communicate in my day-to-day life, and in a parallel, it made me more dedicated towards honing my German during my time at BCB.
On one evening whilst emptying my bag in search of a pen, two teenage participants began pouring over my German textbook, and made comparisons to their own English ones, as both books are aimed at the same linguistic level. Meanwhile, the regular attendees to our Monday sessions have watched me grow from a nervous A1 student to a more conversational and confident B1 speaker, and they regularly like to talk to me in German before and after our sessions to help me gain more practice speaking with native speakers, in an unofficial exchange of our language skills. There have been many occasions where people have tried to find or remember specific words in English or German, which have led to some interesting attempts at explaining or describing them, such as in my most recent session, in which I was trying to remember the German word for fondant as part of a conversation about Christmas baking. I spent several minutes trying to explain it in German to our participants, who also couldn’t remember the word, until we came to the realisation that it was the same in English and in German!
All in all, my conversations with Berliners have become the highlight of my week. Without them, I believe my time at BCB so far would feel very different, as would my connection to the city and the surrounding community near BCB’s campus. So, to anyone who is reading this and is considering joining English Hour: do it. Open up to our neighbours, to Pankow and to Berlin. Open your ears, your heart, your mind, and most importantly, your mouth!
English Hour’s on-campus meetings have qualified for a small amount of external funding from Partnerschaft für Demokratie Pankow, as part of the national Demokratie Leben! Programme, to help provide materials and support so it can continue to grow.
Students who are interested in becoming involved with English Hour can contact the Civic Engagement office on campus, or via email.