Neurology administrative assistant volunteers as conversation partner

By Julie Kirchem, Department of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics

On any given weekday afternoon, the food court on South Campus is filled with UT Southwestern employees talking and having lunch. Among them on one busy Thursday in February are Susan Thompson, an administrative assistant in the Department of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Yury Rapoport, M.D., a visiting senior fellow in the Department of Urology.

It was the third lunch meeting for Susan and Yury who likely would have never met if it wasn’t for English Conversation Partners, a new initiative at UT Southwestern to help non-native speakers work on their English skills.

English Conversation Partners Yury Rapoport and Susan Thompson meet for lunch on South Campus.
English Conversation Partners Yury Rapoport and Susan Thompson meet for lunch on South Campus.

Yury is a native of Russia and hasn’t had many opportunities since arriving at UT Southwestern to hone his English. It’s partly because international students tend to form networks with others from their native country.

“I am working most of the time and most of my friends here are of Russian descent and I mostly speak Russian with them,” Yury said. “I wanted to improve my English, to speak with real Americans.”

Susan volunteered because she wanted to help and she thought it would be fun to learn about another culture. As a native speaker of English, she is highly qualified to be a conversation partner. Her assignment is simple—to spend time talking with Yury.

“I try to initiate conversation and get him to talk more with me,” Susan said. “If he asks me a question about the language, I can answer that, but we usually just talk about different things like how life is in Russia.”

Yury was one of 80 international students who put in an application with the Office of International Affairs for a conversation partner. He knew the mechanics of English from high school courses, but speaking the language was a new challenge.

“I’m still thinking in the Russian language and translating into English,” he said. “I want to switch to thinking in English.”

Yury might not have pursued a conversation partner if it hadn’t been for a misunderstanding that resulted from his limited English speaking skills.

“I have a friend from Fort Worth, he’s a cowboy, and I hardly understand a word. He uses a lot of slang. When he calls me on the phone, it’s a disaster,” Yury said.

“We got into a conversation for twenty minutes and I got tired of saying, “repeat, repeat” so I just started saying “yes.” The next morning he calls and says, “Where are you?” I was at work but he was waiting for me on his boat. We had made an agreement to go on his boat but I didn’t know it.”

Yury hopes to avoid miscommunications like that in the future and become more comfortable in conversation. He and Susan will meet a total of 12 times in 12 weeks. Yury has already noticed a difference in his English.

“What happens is you pick up the way of speaking and don’t even realize it,” he said.

UT Southwestern is home to 1,000 international visitors from 40 countries and the question that they ask the most is, “How can I meet Americans?”

Maggie Pinson, Director of the Office of International Affairs, says the number of international visitors wanting a conversation partner currently outnumbers the applications from volunteers.

“We received applications from about 60 native English speakers and about 80 international visitors,” she said. “So, you can see that there continues to be an un-met need. “

International visitors that could not be matched in January will be the first to be matched in July when Pinson’s office formally recruits new U.S. participants.