Coffee talk

Karla Follestad’s café serves up conversation

photo by shannon rooney

Karla Follestad has taught ESL (English as a Second Language) courses for 20 years at Butte Community College, helping her students to overcome the challenges many people in the United States face without speaking, reading and writing skills. Because recent budget cuts whittled down the time English-language learners spend in class, she started the Conversation Café, which meets Tuesdays from 5 to 5:50 p.m. in Room 157 at the Butte College Chico Center. Participants have the opportunity to engage in conversational English with fluent speakers—and, true to a café atmosphere, coffee and cookies are served. For more info, contact Follestad at or 566-5750.

What courses do you teach?

Survival Life Skills (entry-level English) is for people with little or no English. They learn conversational English, such as for shopping, doctors’ appointments, looking for an apartment—everyday language skills. The other course is Beginning ESL. These are taught at the Chico Center in the evening because people work and then come in the evening to study.

Who are the students you teach?

Many of the students have just arrived from Latin America, mostly Mexico, with little or no English. We also have some students from Southeast Asia and a smattering of Chinese and Japanese students, some Middle-Easterners, and some North Africans. With the Mexican students, a majority of the older ones have not earned their high-school diplomas in Mexico, because they’ve had to work.

How does Conversation Café work?

The students sit in groups of about four. I make up for each week a set of prompts. Like all prompts, they are just a springboard. Each group’s conversation will have to do with whatever is going on in that group. International students from higher-level courses are welcome at the café too.

What do you need from the community?

We need fluent English speakers. This is an incredible opportunity for people to come and have this direct interaction with people who may not be part of their ordinary lives. I think that can create more empathy and understanding. It’s really important for the students to have the opportunity to converse and communicate in everyday situations. The café brings different groups together, so there’s exposure versus stereotype. It’s about creating community through conversation and getting to know one another. The students need English speakers who will really engage them and be curious and interested so they’ll feel like “I mean something.” Life is about connection and relationships.