Volunteers helping Edmonton newcomers connect and practise English during the pandemic say there are benefits to moving programming online.
Catholic Social Services' Learning and Community Enrichment program (LACE) moved its English conversation circles online this summer.
Before the pandemic, the program — funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada — helped newcomers network, socialize and practise their English at Edmonton Public Library branches.
Though there are fewer sessions running each week and not all of the volunteers were comfortable teaching online, program co-ordinator Janice Bardestani said the online meetings are more accessible for people with children and people who do not live near bus routes.
She said some participants who used to show up three times a week are now joining the classes five times a week.
"Some of them have actually said, I prefer it online and I will stay with it this way," she said.
Once the pandemic ends, organizers plan to offer the conservation circles in both formats.
Volunteer Cheryl Johnson-Dempsey said people attend the discussions because they feel apprehensive about communicating with native English speakers.
"They worry about how others perceive them," she said.
In recent conversation groups, participants have talked about adapting to their new city, mental health struggles and coping strategies.
Tilda Tian, who moved to Edmonton from China in August 2019, said the online conversations are good for her mental health.
She told CBC that when she arrived at the Edmonton International Airport last year, she could barely communicate in English and felt isolated and frustrated. She has since improved her language skills and formed friendships through the program.
She meets with her new friends online and uses the Chinese social media app WeChat to connect.
"I don't feel lonely anymore," she said.
I don't feel lonely anymore. - Tilda Tian, LACE participant
Alphonse Orsot said the online conversation circles have helped him feel more confident as an English speaker.
Orsot came to Edmonton from Côte D'Ivoire with his family in September 2019.
He said he was afraid to speak English at first, but after just one month attending the classes online two or three times a week, his speaking skills improved.
"I can speak English now," he said.
Lei Shi, an exchange student who wanted to improve his English, started attending the conversation circles in June.
Though he returned to China in November, he still attends the sessions remotely, waking up as early as 4 a.m. to do so.
Shi said he enjoys learning about cooking skills and English idioms during the meetings.
Now when someone says "she sounds like a broken record," Shi knows what that means.
Volunteer Tom Keating said teaching online has its drawbacks, including fewer moments of spontaneous social interaction, but the online format has worked well and attendance keeps increasing.
"Clearly by going online we're helping to meet that demand," he said.
LACE is currently running 13 conversation circles a week online, from Monday to Saturday, with more sessions scheduled for the new year.