LARGO — The Largo Public Library is a repository of knowledge, to be sure.
But for those who have come to the city from other countries for work, family or school, the library provides a resource as simple as water and nearly as essential: the ability to communicate.
Since October, the library has offered free private English tutoring and English language conversation classes to anyone interested.
According to the program's coordinator, Britney Hord, the classes and tutoring have been not only popular, but a runaway success.
People from more than a dozen countries have come, and many have left — not for lack of interest, but because they have grown more confident in their skills.
For Gustavo Patino, who has lived and worked in Florida for 10 years, and his twin daughters, Kelly and Carolina, both 18 and recent transplants to Largo on student visas from Colombia, the lessons with tutor Ann Lawlor have proved invaluable.
For the father, the lessons are a way to learn a language he has been surrounded by for years, but never mastered. For his daughters, they are a chance to get ahead before they start at St. Petersburg College next year.
For Kelly and Carolina Patino, the learning curve has been steep. They only arrived in May.
"Difficult, yes," Kelly said after a session this month in one breath — in English.
Then in the next: "I love it. It's fun."
The opportunity the library provides, they say, is a great way to get ahead in the English as a Second Language classes they attend at the Clearwater Adult Education Center.
"It's necessary, very important for university," Carolina said.
The three attend weekly lessons with Lawlor at space provided by the library.
The lessons, which use workbooks and other exercises thought up by the tutors, who each were required to take a teaching English as a second language training course taught by a St. Petersburg College professor, show students not only new words, but hone skills that could give them more confidence in everyday interactions:
"Bocabulary," Gustavo said during a lesson, with that soft "b" common in most Spanish dialects.
"Vee," Lawlor corrected. "Put your top teeth into your lower lip."
"Vocabulary," Gustavo said.
"Good!" Lawlor responded.
In more advanced classes, like the one Largo Parks Department employee Robert Amon teaches on his own time, students come to him for homework help.
He said not only do they learn, but he also comes away with a greater cultural understanding.
"It's one on one, and a chance for me to learn about other cultures," Amon said.
One example: When going over idioms, he discovered the Venezuelan equivalent to "It's raining cats and dogs."
"Se está vertiendo lanzadores," he said. "It's pouring pitchers."
Since the program is mostly volunteer-based, it operates on a shoestring budget, said Hord, the librarian responsible for organizing the lessons.
But in a city with a growing population of Hispanic residents and people from around the world, she said the community needed additional language resources — something previously unavailable outside schools.
"We had a lot of need for it," Hord said. "You see it even in the library. We had situations with patrons who returned something late because they didn't speak English.
"A lot of countries don't have a public library system and don't know how they work. It had been brewing for a long time."
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Advertising for the program began with simple fliers posted at local food banks, health clinics, resource centers and Dixie Hollins Adult Education Center.
But word of mouth quickly spread, leading to full rosters for each available tutor — all 37, who work at least 150 hours combined each month.
"Now I don't even advertise," Hord said.
Many tutors are retired teachers, some are college students who want to teach when they graduate, and even Largo Vice Mayor Robert Murray has a student he tutors.
The other component of the library's language offering, the English conversation hour, began with just four students during its first meeting last year, but has gained a following of more than 20 regulars.
The weekly sessions, which are less formal than the tutoring and revolve around games and exercises — like making mock phone calls — are on hiatus for the holidays, but will return early next year.
Hord said the map she set up in the classroom is a testament to the diversity of cultures that are settling in around Tampa Bay.
"On the map, we have Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, India, Turkey, Romania, Algeria, Hungary, Cameroon, Bali, several from pretty much everywhere in South America, and Mexico, of course," Hord said. "Oh, and we had one from Madagascar, too."
Dominick Tao can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 580-2951.