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Coffee Talk

International students and local retirees get together to practice English — and make friends.

Yanning Zhang started studying English in the fourth grade in her school in China, so she wasn’t at a loss for words when she came to the United States in 2018 to pursue a doctoral degree in economics at NC State. But there were still challenges, primarily from local colloquialisms or generational slang that didn’t match the proper English she had learned.

She struggled, for example, when people discussed unfamiliar events like the Super Bowl. Or even with a simple word like “chill,” which to Zhang meant the temperature was cold.

“I learned that it also means to relax,” she says. “Or ‘That person is very chill, they are very relaxed.’”

I learned that it also means to relax. Or “That person is very chill, they are very relaxed.”
Yanning Zhang

So Zhang was thankful to learn of a university effort that paired international students like herself with older volunteers — many of whom took classes as part of NC State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) — to meet over coffee or tea and have conversations in English. Since October, Zhang has met about once a month over tea with a Raleigh retiree to discuss shared interests such as protecting the environment. “I have learned many words from her,” Zhang says.

That’s the sort of synergy that Robin Kube, a senior lecturer who is the ESL program coordinator at NC State, hoped for when she approached administrators at OLLI last fall about connecting international students with older volunteers in the area. Kube says international students told her that their American counterparts on campus often seemed too busy to sit for an extended conversation. “They’ve memorized grammar,” Kube says of the international students, “but they’ve never had a conversation in English with an American.”

Kube says the effort was an instant hit, and there are now 26 pairs who meet regularly to have conversations in English. “I was blown away,” she says. “These are two groups that love meeting together.” 

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