The soft-spoken woman formed her words carefully, without the help of the electronic dictionary that sat nearby.
“My name is Sachiko,” she said, pausing between words. “I am from Japan.”
Her teacher praised her and then asked what she thought about the weather.
When it was her classmate’s turn to talk, Feras Mohammed said that his wife was expecting a baby. The 35-year-old Iraqi added that the cold Ohio winter has been difficult at times.
This small talk has a purpose. Mohammed and Sachiko Kondo participate in a conversation group to improve their English at Indianola Presbyterian Church in the University District in Columbus.
The group is led by Bob Patton, a trained English tutor, and Jack Kyle, a church member.
Several central-Ohio churches and religious groups teach English as a second language, seeing it as a way to minister to immigrants, who often feel isolated in their new country.
For the most part, the churches say they offer the groups simply to help, not to gain more members or convert new Christians. Sometimes, new English speakers want to have conversations about religion or attend services at the church, and that is welcomed.
The U.S. Census Bureau found in 2000 that 6.1 percent of people living in Ohio spoke a language other than English at home, compared with 17.9 percent in the country as a whole.
Those numbers for the 2010 census haven’t been released. But the bureau’s American Community Survey, done between 2005 and 2009, estimates the number of people nationwide who speak a language other than English at home to be nearly one-fifth of the population.
It was a different world when University Baptist Church started its International Coffee Hour program about 40 years ago, said Mary Riley, a member who coordinates the group. Back then, the program wasn’t about teaching language. It was a way for women of all backgrounds to get themselves and their young children out of the house.
As the immigrant population grew in Columbus, the program turned into an English class.
The teachers — all volunteers — are trained to teach English or have been tutoring for a long time, Riley said. Between 60 and 80 women come each Wednesday morning and are divided into 15 or 16 groups depending on their abilities and needs.
The group is restricted to women because some men in other cultures aren’t comfortable with their wives interacting with men, Riley said, and the women feel freer to discuss their personal lives.
The women come from Japan, China, India, Indonesia and other countries. The group has long welcomed war refugees, first from Vietnam and now from Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Riley said faith motivates her to help these women, but the teachers keep religion out of the lessons.
“We will make no attempts to change religion or culture,” she said. “We respect people the way they are. God created us all.”
Rose Miller started the English Language Learners program at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Hilliard three years ago because she understands the difficulty of being new in America. Originally from the Philippines, Miller moved to South Carolina at age 12 to live with an aunt after her mother died.
She grew up speaking both Tagalog and English but still had difficulty understanding Southern dialect.
Miller trained to teach English with the Columbus Literacy Council. A registered nurse, she also teaches basic CPR to her students.
For the people in her class, “If they don’t speak English well, they’re very dependent on other people.”
Often, that means they can’t make friends outside their ethnic group, she said. In the worst cases, they must rely on an abusive spouse to survive.
For Kondo, the Japanese woman in the Indianola Presbyterian class, frustration comes when she tries to communicate with doctors when she’s sick. She followed her husband, an engineer, to Columbus.
Mohammed, her classmate, is trained as an electrical engineer but has had trouble finding work. His wife is a U.S. citizen.
“I want to learn more English because I am planning to go back to school to get my master’s degree,” he said. “And I want it for social gatherings, too.”