University City

Conversation Hours bring comfort with languages at Charlotte’s International House

If the walls of Room 202 inside International House could talk, they’d never run out of stories to tell.

They’d know where to find the best ramen in Japan. They probably could divulge a couple of behind-the-scenes secrets on The Louvre.

And the jokes: They would have the whole room belly-laughing with the one about the Russian farmer and the shriveled potato.

That’s because Room 202 is the location of Conversation Hours, an informal 60 minutes of chatting where those who want to learn a language sit on comfy couches and chairs with native speakers.

On Tuesday and Fridays, it’s English. Thursdays it’s Portuguese.

Arabic, German, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French and Japanese are all offered. The classes are free and open to all ages and levels.

There are no lesson plans. The conversations are natural and center on a multitude of topics, just like you’re among friends.

International House has existed for 30 years in Charlotte, and began offering conversation hours around the same time as it opened. The number of languages offered, and the number of participants, have continued to grow.

“What we’re trying to do is give people the opportunity to become international citizens by learning or practicing languages,” said Bruce Holliday, IH communications director. “You will meet people attached to that community in Charlotte, and you’ll learn about the culture and the history.”

The reasons people come are as diverse as the languages.

The dozen people at the last Japanese conversation hour were split evenly between native and non-native speakers.

Michael Tavera, 20, knows little Japanese but plans to travel to Japan to experience the culture.

“I like to go where it’s completely different from what I’m used to,” said Tavera, who’s been to the Dominican Republic and Germany.

On Thursdays at noon, Tavera drops in for an hour of Japanese conversation, mainly listening. “I want to get used to hearing and speaking the language,” he said.

Joyce Chandler, in her 40s, was born in Japan, but her husband doesn’t speak the language. She brings her 7-month-old son, James, on Thursdays so he can listen to her native language.

Tessa Burnett, 27, studied Japanese in school and plans to find a job at a Japanese firm as a translator. She comes to the Conversation Hour to sharpen her skills.

“I get to practice Japanese and, in the process, make lots of friends,” she said.

For Monica Embrey, 27, it’s an opportunity to connect with her heritage.

“My grandmother is Japanese, so I started learning when I was a kid,” she said, “but only a couple of words, because my dad didn’t speak any.”

In March, Embrey will visit Okayama, Japan, to see her cousins. She began coming to the conversation hour to pick back up on the language in preparation for the trip.

In the process, Embrey met another person from the same Japanese city. They’ve spent hours talking about the neighborhoods, restaurants and local attractions.

It makes the world seem a little less large, and its inhabitants a little more closely knit, she said.

“What a coincidence,” said Embrey. “In the middle of Charlotte, a city of thousands, we meet in the same room.”