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Cultures, generations mix in this immersive English class

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English practice
Taejung Kim, left, and Marwan Alrefaei are students in the University of Minnesota's Intensive English Language Program. Here, the international students spend an afternoon practicing their English with residents at the Kenwood Retirement Community of July 27, 2012, in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows, the key to fluency is speaking that new language as much as possible.

That's exactly what the students in the University of Minnesota's intensive English program have set out to do. On this day, they're visiting with the residents of the Kenwood Retirement Community in Minneapolis.

"I am from Saudi Arabia and I am 22," says a young man. 

"Not me. I'm old," responds one woman.

"Well, I'm 97. So, that's a lot of years," chimes in another.

Spending the day with the retirees is one way foreign students practice their ever-improving English.

"What kinds of things do you do in your free time?" a student asks.

English practice
International students from the University of Minnesota's Intensive English Language Program practice their English with residents at Kenwood Retirement Community on July 27, 2012.in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Are you asking me what kind of social life I had?" laughs a resident.

U of M coordinator Becky Uran Markman organizes cross-cultural exchanges like these throughout the seven-week-long summer session. A hundred students from around the world are participating in the intense, immersive-English program. 

"Not only are you practicing your English, but you're really having a meaningful experience talking with another person," said Markman . "And, in this case, it's beautiful because the seniors have so many life experiences to share. We are very fortunate because most of them are retired so they have some time they can meet with us." 

Adham Albulushi, a 19-year-old contemporary film buff from Oman, knew a lot about American pop culture before he came to Minnesota.  He said talking with senior citizens is an opportunity for him to learn about American life in decades past.

"I asked them about the happiest moment they had," said Albulushi. "Asked them how they are living their life, what they do when they were younger."

Albulushi listens as resident Margaret Strong talks about the energy of the 1950s, the anxiety of the 1930s and how her father's world differed from today.

"He worked his entire career for the same company," she told him. "People going out today will work five, six, seven different jobs in their lifetime."

English practice
Each summer, participants in the University of Minnesota's English Language Program are paired with residents of a Twin Cities retirement home. The foreign students practice their English skills and the residents share their life stories.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Over lemonade and cookies, students use their expanding English vocabulary to ask questions about the United States. The most common query focuses on the retirement home itself. The majority of students, like Saudi Yahya Alsabban come from countries where senior housing simply doesn't exist. 

"We take care of [our] own fathers and mothers," Alsabban said.

"The place here, do you like it?" another student asked.

"You asked the right person because I love it here," the woman replied. "I chose to come here after my husband died, I really like it a lot because they have all kinds of activities like this one."

Mary Arbisi, 84  spent the afternoon chatting with a few students from South Korea and one from Oman.

"And she lived on a farm. I grew up on a farm so we had a little talk about farming in Oman," said Arbisi. "I particularly enjoy meeting people from other countries. It's my way of learning about other countries. I love it."

That sentiment is shared by Haruka Beppu, 23, from Japan.

"We could learn about American culture more, not only our generation, not only university students," Beppu said. "I could know about the elderly of America, a more deep understanding about America."

Plus, Beppu says, chatting with the residents of Kenwood Retirement Community is like spending time with her grandparents. That's a big perk for someone who is 6,000 miles from home.