Learning a new language as an adult can sometimes feel like pulling teeth. It's not enough to know the correct way to pronounce a word or where to put an accent mark—you've got to know how to confidently hold a fluent conversation, and in academic-leaning classes, that's often the part that gets left behind.
Luckily for Orlando residents, there is help. Fluente, a local organization that arranges meetups between English and Spanish learners, is holding weekly 90-minute conversation practice every Thursday at 7 p.m. for the next seven weeks at Acacia's El Centro Borinqueño on 1865 N. Econlockhatchee Trail.
Sponsored by the Florida Institute for Reform and Empowerment (FIRE), the meetings are designed to be comfortable and low-pressure, says José Luis Marantes, founder of the organization. At their first meetup last week, local language learners ate small pastries, participated in a scavenger hunt and danced to Rihanna's song "Work" as they interacted. Participants separated into small groups with equal amounts of Spanish and English learners then rejoined to listen to Marantes' instructions.
"It's about having a good time and about helping one another," he says. "I think language learning is the ticket to making this country a better place."
But does it actually work? Raul Nava says the proof is in his newfound English skills. After immigrating to Florida from Venezuela 10 months ago, Nava says he enrolled in local English classes, but wasn't making much progress. Like other recent arrivals, he had a hard time finding a job because he didn't know enough English. One day in class, his teacher announced a nearby Fluente meetup. Nava says he decided to try it and his English has improved so much in the past months that he's been able to interview for jobs over the phone, something he couldn't have done before Fluente.
"It's marvelous," he says. "It's like opening a window to a new world or as they say here, getting outside your bubble. It helps me not only with my fluency, but understanding the culture and really becoming a resident of Orlando."
About two thirds of Fluente participants are English-speaking Spanish learners, according to Marantes, and the organization hopes to reach 1,000 participants in its different meetups around Central Florida by the end of the year. The series of meetups at El Centro Borinqueño will also have classes dedicated to the environment, women, living wages, individual rights and voting. If you can't make it on Thursday, Fluente is also holding weekly meetups Wednesday nights in Winter Park at Café Frutos Selectos.
"Language is social, and by building this bridge to fluency we empower marginalized communities," says Michelle Suarez of FIRE. "By giving our communities a space and platform to express themselves, we are also allowing for leadership development in the process. The partnership with FIRE and Fluente will enhance the students quality of life to better intersect and advocate for issues around employment, education, immigration, health, and social justice."