Integration is a two-way street

I am always inspired when meeting TimeBank volunteers by how much they are willing to venture out of their comfort zone; taking on the role of mentor or English teacher and allowing the experience of volunteering to shape their own lives and attitudes.

Talking Together is all about providing women who can’t speak the language with free and accessible, volunteer-led English language classes. At the heart of this project is the desire to see learners more empowered and communities better integrated, which can only be achieved by increasing learners’ confidence to apply their new language skills and step outside their comfort zone.

That’s why we encourage many of our volunteer teachers to literally go the extra mile (or five), taking learners on a local trip, where they can experience using their English in real life situations that the classroom has prepared them for.

One volunteer, Penny, said she was surprised to find that some of her learners had never been to the city centre or seen the library, museums, canals and markets. As someone who had recently moved to Birmingham herself these had been some of the first places on her list to explore. So she organised a trip at the end of the Talking Together course to include all the free tourist attractions Birmingham has to offer.

Penny says: “When I was talking to my students about our coming trip I realised that some had never been on a bus before and felt nervous about the prospect. The thing was that I felt nervous too - being new to the city I hadn’t worked out all the bus routes and wasn’t sure about the fares. I let my students know that this was new to me as well and we all felt a lot more confident once we’d made the trip into town together. Some of the students who hadn’t used the bus before felt they would do so in the future - and I use the bus much more now as well.

I’ve found my students have very different experiences of the city centre. Some go in regularly (much more often than I do) to buy fresh food from the market and some to window shop. Others might have only been in once, or maybe never. For those students who don’t know it, it’s a real adventure and they’ve all said it’s been a really good experience.  And for those who go to the market it’s been eye-opening to go to the library or the museum or see the canals for the first time.  Many of the students have said they’ll now take their families to these places and I know some students have got all their family members to join the library.”

Penny has since taught many other Talking Together courses and each time ends her course with a trip to the city centre. But on my next visit to her class, her lesson took a twist and she asked learners to help her prepare for a trip to Sparkhill.

Penny had realised there were parts of the city she did not venture to, through fear of the unknown. Parts of the city that were only a mile down the road but she didn’t know how to orientate herself; whether she might need to ask for directions or how she could ask about the different foods in Bangladeshi and Pakistani shops. How was she surprised that learners hadn’t entered new and unknown spaces when she herself lived a mile away from areas still unexplored?

She says: “Taking students into town also made me think about why it was that I hadn’t been to some parts of the city - and it was for  much of the same reasons why some of my students hadn’t been to the town centre. I was surprised they’d never explored the canals and they were surprised to hear I’d never gone shopping somewhere like Ladypool Road. So I asked for their advice about where to go, and then went; and had a really enjoyable time. Amazing clothes shops, fab sweet shops and supermarkets. It was brilliant and so next time I took my family and we will go regularly.

Teaching the English classes has meant that I’ve needed to learn more about the city for my teaching and it’s also meant I’ve learned about the city from my students. It’s been a great way of getting to know Birmingham and feeling part of it.”

Integration is truly a two-way street; our Talking Together volunteers are not just imparting their knowledge to help others learn a language, they are learning from our learners, encountering people and cultures they may never have crossed paths with otherwise and discovering parts of the city they had called home for so long. What a difference a mile can make.

If you'd like to know more about our Talking Together project, take a look here.