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Immigrants Practice English At This Miami-Dade Library

Alexander Gonzalez
Min Shaheen (right) leads her weekly English conversation circle at the library. About seven participants discuss current events at the Miami-Dade Library's main branch in downtown Miami.

The second floor of the Miami-Dade County Library in downtown Miami buzzes with conversation. It's a space where talking is encouraged.

Eight people seated around a table are discussing the day’s news. Min Shaheen, a librarian, brings up the Trump administration’s plans to end a deal between Major League Baseball and Cuba.

“What’s the take of the potential players?” Shaheen asks Carlos Fernandez, who moved to South Florida from Cuba three years ago.

“They think it’s a good deal, but they’re also on an island exploited by the government. You’re totally ignorant about how the world works,” he says.

The others around the table, who come from Brazil, Russia and Japan, continue the conversation. They come regularly to the library to practice English.

Libraries across South Florida and the country are reflecting on ways to stay relevant. As they celebrate National Libraries Week, these changing public institutions are considering their value in today’s society — how they’re evolving from the perception that they just store physical books, audiobooks and e-books.

In multilingual South Florida, language learning has developed organically. Several branches in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties organize conversation circles in English.

The conversation circle in Miami's main branch goes a step further, serving as an impromptu “America 101” class for recently arrived immigrants.

At Tuesday’s conversation, Chika Kihara, 24, arrived a little later. She hadn’t been coming the last few weeks because of allergy problems, the moderator Shaheen told the group.

“Do you have insurance? Have you chosen a primary doctor?” Shaheen asked.

“No, I don’t know how to choose them. It’s totally different from my country,” said Kihara, who moved to Miami from Japan six months ago because of her husband’s job.

Shaheen briefly explains how health insurance works in the U.S. She weaves in cultural lessons so the group experiences language in action.

“It’s not just a conversation. It’s a way for them to learn from each other,” she said.

Shaheen also aims to introduce people to U.S. current events while tying them into news that speaks to participants’ home countries. The conversation about the MLB-Cuba deal eventually turned to one about soccer in Europe and hockey in Russia.

Shaheen, 55, who’s originally from China, earned degrees in English and Spanish. Her supervisor asked her to run the conversation circle when it started nearly three years ago.

She admits that at first, she wasn’t enthusiastic about joining but has found the effort rewarding – especially when she sees improvement over several weeks.

“When some of the participants from the past, when they decided to go take formal classes to improve their writing and reading, I thought that’s pretty good. It’s almost like they’re graduating,” she said.

The circle’s core members meet at the library almost religiously each week. They also get together outside the library, suggest other English classes, chat in a What’s App group and bring food when a longstanding member leaves or gets hired.

Kihara, who recently started a temp job in translation, said she started coming to the circle three months ago to make friends and find community.

“It’s a really good place for me to have connection with other people. It helps me a lot for my mental health,” she said.

It’s not just a conversation. It’s a way for them to learn from each other. - Min Shaheen

Fernandez, who was talking about the MLB-Cuba deal, treks from Fort Lauderdale to join the circle. The 29-year-old heard about it from a fellow participant who goes to another free conversation group run out of a private language school in Brickell.

Formal private English classes can be expensive. One participant said he’s seen $35 an hour. Others have taken courses at Miami-Dade College, where $118 per credit is considered a bargain compared to nearby public four-year universities.

Fernandez, who makes a living at Starbucks and driving for Uber and Lyft, said he prefers coming to the library’s circle because he says he can speak more freely with the other participants and not just with whomever is running the group.

It has some symbolic significance for him. He left Cuba because he was looking for freedom from the island’s communist government.

“I wanna be free. I wanna travel the world. I wanna grow up by myself, for my own opportunities. I don’t want anybody to tell me, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t think differently,’” he said.

At Tuesday’s class, Shaheen taught the group a new phrase – “bucket list.”

“It’s a list of things you want to do before you depart from this world,” she said amid some awkward laughter.

“Mine is complicated,” Fernandez said. “I want to go to so many places. I wanna travel anywhere.”

At this library, it can feel like you've already circled the globe.

Alexander Gonzalez produces the afternoon newscasts airing during All Things Considered. He enjoys helping tell the South Florida story through audio and digital platforms. Alex is interested in a little of everything from business to culture to politics.