This new library event is helping international students boost their English skills

February 11, 2019

Mardigian Library’s weekly Conversation Circles are a laid back way to practice English. But the new program is also hoping to build bridges between native and non-native speakers.

UM-Dearborn Conversation Circles

Anybody who’s ever tried to learn another language knows that everyday conversation skills can be one of the toughest things to master. It can also be plenty intimidating: Getting comfortable takes continual practice — and a willingness to put yourself out there and make mistakes.

So after a recent discussion with Director of Global Engagement Scott Riggs, organizers at Mardigian Library teamed up with other campus units to launch a weekly program designed to give UM-Dearborn’s international students a casual, low-stakes way to practice their English. Known as Conversation Circles, the one-hour Friday events let students dive into small-group conversations of usually four to six people.

Event co-organizer and Mardigian Library Associate Director for User and Technical Services Barbara Kriigel said the students usually don’t need much prodding to get going. But just in case, they typically have a theme for each week that functions sort of like an icebreaker. For one event, it was entertainment. For MLK Day, students talked about the history of activism in the U.S. and their respective countries. And nearly two dozen students from a variety of different countries showed up for the coffee-themed event earlier this month.

“We did a survey of students, and they consistently told us they not only wanted to practice their English and make friends; they wanted to be able to share something about their own culture,” Kriigel explained. “So something like coffee made a lot of sense, because it’s common to a lot of cultures, but there are many different traditions.”

In fact, that day the students more or less ditched the tables they normally sit at to chat and carried their conversations between several coffee stations — each of which showcased different ways of making coffee (and, of course, provided free samples). A few Chinese students even set up a tea station, since in many parts of China, that’s the warm beverage of choice.

The caffeine-fueled conversations were going so well, in fact, organizers had trouble getting everyone to quiet down when the day’s guest speaker arrived — Ibrahim Alhasbani, owner of a Yemeni-style coffee house in Dearborn, who shared stories and answered questions about the long history of coffee in his home country. For Kriigel, it was the perfect organic blend of conversation and cultural exchange.

Ruslan Akhmedagaev, a doctoral student from Russia, has attended every session, and the weekly event has already found a place in his pretty thorough language routine. Every day, he reads four pages in an English-language book (currently it’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind); masters five new words; does one grammar lesson, and watches YouTube videos to improve his listening comprehension. “But I would say 10 minutes in Conversation Circles is like 30 minutes of practicing by myself, because it pushes me to implement all those new things I’m studying on my own.”

Attendance has been steady and growing among the international students. But Kriigel and the other organizers now are hoping to find ways to get American students interested in the Friday events. That’s partly because having native English speakers in the group helps the international students with their language skills. But also because she believes we all have something to gain from getting to know someone who has different experiences than our own.

“One of the things that’s really special about studying in another country are the friendships you make with the people who are from that country,” Kriigel said. “Sometimes, we all need a little push to get out of our social bubbles, but we know really special things can happen for people when they do. And this gives all of our students the opportunity to not miss out on that.”

Conversation Circles happen every Friday from 11 a.m. to noon at the Mardigian Library. Email Barbara Kriigel at for more information.