It's good to talk – international women have been meeting each Friday in York for more than 30 years to learn the art of English conversation

Words: Maxine Gordon

Photos: Anna Gowthorpe

HARRY and Meghan are the topic of the week at the Friday English class in York.

Today, about a dozen international women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are gathered in the Friends Meeting House to practise speaking English.

Many come from the Far East: Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, but also Europe, including Spain and Turkey.

They huddle in small groups, each with a native speaker, and are excitedly discussing what the Royal couple might wear on their big day later this month.

The class is being led by Maggie Peploe, a former journalist, and one of the regular volunteers with the Friday English group, which has been running in York for more than 30 years.

It was first established in the early 1980s to help the Vietnamese boat people who had settled in York with English language skills.

Nancy Spratt was one of the early volunteers – and still lends a hand regularly, even at the grand age of 90.

She said: "The local council set up classes to help the Vietnamese women learn English and help them settle in. There were about eight or ten families settled around York.

"Back at the start, what we taught was very basic: what they needed to go to the doctor, speak to the teacher, or at the shops.

"People kept on coming – and the classes have been going ever since."

Nancy recalls that some of the Vietnamese women had harrowing stories. "One lady had given birth during the boat journey to Hong Kong. Another had lost her husband, but miraculously, he turned up after a few months.

"Looking back, it is impressive how they settled in to a completely different way of life."

The nationalities of the women who attend the class have varied over the years, adds Nancy. "We had women from the local Bangladeshi community, women running Chinese takeaways and Indian restaurants, then au pairs from Eastern Europe or South America.

"After a few years, we welcomed more refugees, this time Kurds from Turkey.

"Then we advertised in local community news sheets and at York university, and gradually wives of foreign post-graduate students started coming, from South Korea, Japan, India, and many countries of the Middle East and South America."

Nancy observes that the content of the meetings has changed over the years too. "We almost never get complete English-speaking beginners now. But life in Britain, life in York, schools, health services, colloquial English, these constant themes remain, but are treated in a more detailed way."

The focus remains on practising the art of conversation – in English. Nancy says: "An important part of every meeting is sitting in little groups with a native speaker and chatting, on whatever subject is most interesting."

Maggie has picked a popular topic today, and the women seem to know a lot about the Royal nuptials which will take place at Windsor Castle on May 19.

All the tutors work as volunteers, and each has a teaching qualification or background in working with adults in eduction. This ensures classes are structured with a purpose and clear outcomes – they are informative, but enjoyable too.

Val Seddon has been a tutor with the group for ten years. She said: "We try to find topics we believe people will be able to engage with and talk about with whatever level of English they have.

"The sort of topics we cover are life in England, social interaction, using the health service, local government – even recycling.

"Some of the women live in York permanently, others might only be here for a few months or years.

"The class gives them the confidence to use the English that they have and expand their vocabulary – as well as make new friends."

Mizumi Zhang, from Japan, and Dondu Kavak, from Turkey, can vouch for that.

Dondu has lived in York for 17 years, and has been coming to the Friday class on and off for three years. She said: "I am learning to speak better English every week and learning new words. People are very friendly."

Mizumi has been attending the group for seven years. She is a private tutor in Japanese and gets a lot from the class. "I think it is very nice, not just so I can speak English. As a foreigner you get very few chances to make friends and get to know people. I now have lots of friends from this group – it is a form of socialising."

Friday English runs every Friday in term time from 9.30-11.30am (cost £2, pay on the door: first session is free) at the Friends Meeting House, Friargate, York. Women can bring along preschool-aged children too (bring toys/books for them to play with). Find out more: