Under-used resource at UAA conquers language barriers

In front of a world map, University of Alaska Anchorage students and others from the Anchorage community gather for casual English conversation. Members of the English Conversation Group sit in a circle of couches to discuss language and cultural barriers they face and build their confidence in speaking the English language.

“English Conversation is designed to be a comfortable, casual space for people to come and practice speaking [English],” Program Specialist Heather Teel said. “We are supposed to speak up in class, and if you’re not confident in that or don’t believe you can or you think you will make a fool of yourself, then you’re not going to [participate in class discussion].”

Organized by Teel and run by journalism student Elena Peyton Jones, the English Conversation Group meets in the Learning Commons located in UAA’s Sally Monserud Hall every Friday from 12-1 p.m.

Peyton Jones, who has been with the English Conversation Group for two years, is also an academic coach. She volunteered abroad in Peru and other countries, where she gained experience talking to people with very different mindsets than her own.

Teel, who studied abroad and speaks Japanese, French and Spanish, took over the English Conversation Group in the summer of 2018. She and the original manager, assistant director Maegan Cieciel, started the program about two years ago to compensate for the lack of English as a second language, or ESL, courses at UAA.

“We have a lot of people for whom English is something they are still learning or still need to develop the nuances for being in an academic setting,” Teel said. “We want to make sure that they can succeed as well as those who don’t have this problem.”

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Peyton Jones and Teel work to build the oral-skill confidence of those who attend English Conversation Group. Teel brainstorms topics to start with, but the open-ended meetings often branch out to other topics.

“[The purpose] is to give people a better opportunity to stop and ask questions when they don’t understand something or to ask clarifying questions that maybe has to do with culture. [Someone might ask,] ‘When you use this word in this context, it means something different, so why is that?’” Peyton Jones said.

In the past, the group included exchange students who showed notable improvement in their English-speaking skills by the end of one semester and agreed that the program really helped them speak up in class with confidence.

While the group is primarily to help speakers of foreign languages in academic settings, it is open-ended enough to the point where students with speech impediments or people outside of UAA may also take advantage of this opportunity. Parents whose first language is not English are also encouraged to come to be able to help their children with homework.

The English Conversation Groups is a valuable resource at UAA. However, only a few people have been showing up.

“I know that it works, we just have to get people to come,” Teel said.

Peyton Jones echoed Teel’s desire to expand the reach of the group.

“I think there are a lot of students who need this service but maybe don’t know about it or are feeling shy,” she said.

Teel and Peyton Jones offer encouragement and welcome anyone who thinks they might benefit from this Learning Commons service.

“It’s a really comfortable environment. We sit on couches and sometimes we have donuts. It’s absolutely chill,” Teel said.

Those who might be hesitant to join the conversation may come to listen.

“Just hearing native speakers talk can be really helpful,” Peyton Jones, who is currently learning Korean and Arabic, said.

Teel hopes to improve outreach in the fall semester to build attendance. Anyone interested in improving their confidence speaking English may stop by on Fridays from 12-1 p.m.

For more information, visit or call the information desk in the Learning Commons at (907) 786-6890.