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I know what it’s like to feel embarrassed about speaking a language you are learning or don’t know very well. My grandmother, who never went to school, struggled with English and was ashamed to speak outside the family. Her sadness made a deep impression on me. At 10 years old, I began learning French, studied it through high school, and later joined a French speaking club. All this served me well, although I lack most slang or terms introduced after my middle school years. A few years ago I cobbled together some words to express “fast food.” I said “alimentation vite,” and native speakers broke out laughing. The right words were “cuisine rapide.”

I was incredibly nervous, never having taught anything, let alone ESL, before.

This background is what led to my volunteering as a “conversation partner.” Distressed over the war in Ukraine, I felt helpless even after donating money. What could I do? A few months ago, the local Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which had done so much for the Russian emigres in the 1980s, emailed me that the first Ukrainian refugees were arriving in the Bay Area. Volunteer opportunities were available, and I could fill out a form to describe my skills. Two weeks later I became a conversation partner to “Olga,” who is living with extended family members in a nearby town.*

After several hours of training and reviewing resources about teaching adult English language learners, I set up my first video session with Olga. I was incredibly nervous, never having taught anything, let alone ESL, before. It turned out Olga was delightful. Her English wasn’t bad, and she was well educated. We soon identified some common interests, including science and reading short stories.

Each week we meet on video for an hour and talk. I can use the chat function to type new vocabulary words and show grammar structure. Through working with Olga, I’ve gained an even greater understanding of how difficult English can be.

This past week we reviewed some irregular verbs. Fall, fell, fallen–you can fall down, fall ill, and prices can fall. That’s different from feel and felt. You can physically feel a tickle, feel ill, or have felt helpless. And those are just the verbs, not fall and feel, and felt as nouns. How do you pronounce “owl”? What is the word for knitting with a hooked needle (crochet). How do you explain April Fool’s Day? That turned out to be easier than I thought, because Ukrainians have a week-long festival in April when they play jokes on each other.

Olga has taught me much about Ukrainian culture and how people lived during Soviet times, the era of freedom, and now that there is a war. I have learned as much or more from her as I have taught her. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.

*Because of strict confidentiality required by the JFCS, I can’t divulge many details about “Olga” (not her real name) and our conversations that would add color to this story, but what I do relate is accurate.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Mare, how wonderful that you are doing this with “Olga”! Sounds like it is a valuable learning experience for both of you. I also like your attempt to translate “fast food” into French, and wonder why the native speakers thought “alimentation vite” was funny. It may not be the phrase they use, but it seems like it would get the point across.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    What a beautiful story, Marian, and, wholly beyond just overcoming your misgivings about translating, you are clearly doing God’s work here. So thank you, from someone who worries he is doing too little!

    And I love the idea of the joking festival because it turns out that I am of Ukranian origin on my father’s side and “Shutkin” translates into “jokester” in Russian. Coincidence? I doubt it.

    That said, I trust you don’t mind how much I enjoyed your faux pas with regard to “fast food.”

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, John. The joke festival takes place in Odessa, where my paternal grandmother grew up, although the festival might have come long after she left. I love that you are a jokester, that’s great. All of us can laugh at our various faux pas–at least we tried.

  3. Mare, how admirable of you to have volunteered to help newly arrived Ukrainians!
    And wonderful to hear you’ve learned from Olga as she was learning from you.

    Bless you Mare! Will you continue and take on more pupils?

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is wonderful way to use your skill as a translator into American English. As such, you have a good grasp of grammar (as you demonstrate with your examples) and helping this refuge is a great way to give back and do great and satisfying volunteer work. Bravo, Mare! You and Olga are both the beneficiaries of your talents.

    • Marian says:

      While it felt like a stretch at the beginning, I’m feeling (per the examples, yet) that I am hitting my stride, and it’s the most impactful way I can help the Ukrainians who end up here.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    What a great experience for both you and “Olga”. Apart from the sharing language, the connection and the stories nourish you both. Sally once made arrangements to learn Turkish from a fellow and she in turn helped his English and acculturation, and in the end they just became great friends. Sometimes translation makes us less lost.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    This story renews my often flagging intent to pick up a workable amount of French!

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