Pu Yang learned some English while growing up in China, but when he moved to Ellicott City, he discovered that he didn't know enough about the language to speak it.
Then he heard about a group called the English Conversation Club that meets Wednesday evenings at the Howard County Library's Charles E. Miller Branch and Historical Center in Ellicott City. Designed for people who know English as a second or third language, the club encourages members to practice speaking and understanding the language while offering cultural and historical context to English words.
At Wednesday's meeting, for example, the group marked the new year by learning words and phrases that have recently become part of the English vocabulary, such as "helicopter parent" and "social media." In recent meetings, group members have explored words from such topics as electricity in houses and plumbing. Students such as Yang said that they've used the terms to help trace and fix problems in their homes.
"I found this is a wonderful place to learn English," said Yang. "It's not just conversation. It's the culture."
The club was launched by Edward Quick, 68, of Columbia, a staff curator for presidential libraries at the National Archives in Washington. He began the class about seven years ago at the request of staff at the Howard central library, where Quick worked as a volunteer in circulation.
The current group consists of about two dozen students.
"This was the first time I had ever led an English conversation club. I had to come up with a plan basically to put it together and organize it the way that would work the best for the English-as-a second-language attendees in this area," Quick said.
Those who attend the class are from countries including China, Russia, Germany, Argentina and India. "The basis of what I do is precluded on people having basic English already and wanting to improve it," Quick said. "If you came to me not speaking English whatsoever, I would send you to the [library's] central branch that has a larger group that works just on teaching you basic English.
"And then, when you wanted to improve your speech, broaden your vocabulary and learn more about culture, then I would be working with you."
Quick said he speaks Spanish and German and can read Russian, Italian and French. He also draws from his presidential curator background. "If the president goes to South America and comes back with different objects, you have to be able to understand what they are and how they work," he said. "It challenges everything you know; knowledge is a fun, fun thing."
During the week of Christmas, Quick chose as his worksheet the Clement C. Moore poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," popularly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." He numbered the lines in the poem and allowed group members to take turns reading them.
"The worksheet means that everyone has to speak, because some people might not want to," said Quick. "Culturally, they're not supposed to forward themselves. This way, everybody has the opportunity, which means we have the opportunity to hear them and where they might have problems pronouncing things. They have questions about words, and we can work with them in a small group.
"There are a lot of difficult English words in this," Quick said of the Moore poem. He offered a vocabulary portion on the worksheet that explained the definition of such words as "'twas," "Vixen," "nestled" and "kerchief."
"You talk about Santa Claus' eight reindeer, and even English speakers don't think about the last two — Donder and Blitzen," said Quick. "I explained that New York was originally called New Amsterdam, and Clement Moore was part of a Dutch club, and he was writing this, and Donder and Blitzen are based on Dutch words that mean 'thunder' and 'lightning.'"
Bob Grossman of Columbia, a volunteer in the group, said that often au pairs join during their brief stints in this country. "A lot have good education, but their speaking of the English language is not always as clear," said Grossman.
On Wednesday night, he worked one-on-one with Juan Fang of Ellicott City, who read aloud from the worksheet the definition of "helicopter parent," which Quick explained is someone overly involved in the life of his or her child.
Fang, who is from China, said that in her country someone would say that such a parent is "close." The club was also introduced to "cougar," which Quick explained was both a large, brown American wild cat and a middle-aged woman seeking a romantic relationship with a younger man. And they learned "trophy wife," which Quick explained was a woman a man marries for the purpose of increasing his status.
Lea Choi of Ellicott City said that in her native Korea, such terms would apply more to the male in the relationship and added, "If an older man is walking around with a younger girl, we would say as a joke, 'He's a thief, because he's stealing a young girl.'"
Quick said that during one meeting, a student asked him for help in preparing for a PowerPoint presentation.
"We've talked about all different types of things," said Quick. "I try to find out what people need. One time we did road signs, because people read, 'Bridge freezes,' and you've got two seconds to understand what it means."
Choi said the class helps her to learn nuances about the English language. "The teachers are really good, really nice and they care about their students, so it's really good," she said.