In Kids & Family

Book clubs can help improve foreign language skills.

Book clubs boost language skills in friendly atmosphere

Book clubs have long been popular in the United States and many booksellers have concocted means for encouraging these groups of readers to soldier on. Of course, once Oprah Winfrey hopped on board, the world of book clubs and the business of bookselling got a massive jolt.

Finding a book club isn't difficult. However, finding a book club that reads books in foreign languages isn't easy in Milwaukee. But if you look, there are a few.

For example, the Alliance Francaise, 1800 E. Capitol Dr. in Shorewood, hosts one in French that meets for an hour and most recently read Jean Renoir's memoir of his father, "Pierre-Auguste Renoir, mon pere." AF Executive Director Anne Herisson-Leplae says the group alternates between discussing books and films and has, "a small, loyal following."

Although queries to members of the German-American community turned up no existing clubs, Petra Theurich, who coordinates a regular conversation group was intrigued enough by the request to test the waters.

"We'll incorporate it into our German Conversation Group that meets on the first Tuesday of the month at Cafe Bruecke (from) 6 to 8 p.m.," she said. "We will put a reading list together for beginners / intermediate / advanced levels."

Surprisingly, the only Spanish language book club to be found (although it seems likely there are others out there) is offered by the School of Continuing Education at UWM. The group is one of the many Spanish language programs coordinated by Program Director of Languages Julie Liotta.

"I made the decision to add the class because students who reach the upper levels really want to continue with some type of advanced study," said Liotta.

"In January, I took a group of 17 Spanish language students to La Manzanilla, Mexico and we had a Spanish book club during out 17 day trip. We read and discussed Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'Love in the Time of Cholera.' Students could choose to read it in English or Spanish but the discussions took place in Spanish. This activity was very popular and challenging."

The UWM Continuing Ed. programs run in January, April, June and September and last eight weeks. There is also a four-week mini-session in November, said Liotta, who noted that other foreign language book clubs are coming soon, too.

"Requests have been made for book clubs in French and Italian, which we will offer this fall," Liotta noted.

Perhaps the most organic foreign language book club we found was organized by a handful of Italian language enthusiasts. The group, which was founded about three years ago, is unaffiliated with any larger organization.

"The impetus to start the group was a love of the Italian language and the desire to improve our ability to read and speak this very beautiful language," said member Tim Frautschi.

"Our discussions are in both Italian and English. It works like this: one person reads a section aloud, maybe a page, in Italian. Then, the same person translates the piece they just read into English, usually with suggestions, corrections, questions, disagreement and exclamations of every kind from the other members present."

One of the most difficult hurdles for his group, Frautschi said, is acquiring books for the group to read.

"It is difficult to find Italian books, practically speaking, here in Milwaukee. We have obtained them in two ways: first, (a member) went to Italy and selected and bought books there, and second, we have bought books on the Web."

Frautschi said that the varying levels of Italian competency among the group has not been a problem at all and that the group's camaraderie makes it a great way to improve one's language skills.

"Regarding the advantages of participating in the group," Frautschi said, "I would say practice, learning Italian in friendly, pleasurable and relaxing conditions, always with a glass of wine in hand, reading fun and interesting books -- some more than others -- and friendship."

The group has read works by the journalist Beppe Severgnini and novelists Erri Di Luca, Antonio Tabucchi and Natalia Ginzburg, among others.


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