Chat Someone Up at English Conversation Club

For MTA group of club members sharpening their language skills at Saturday's meeting.
Georgy Cheremsky, the Moscow English Conversation Club's bard and theatrical director, started attending club meetings for the love of the language.

"I like English; I am fond of English, in fact, I adore English," said Cheremsky, who goes by George at club events.

But in a pause from working the room of English-speakers like a sought-after guest at a cocktail party, Cheremsky said it was his friendships and not his interest in linguistics that kept him coming back to the club for more than a year.

"I have met many of my closest friends here, and apart from meetings at our club, we attend nightclubs and go on vacations together," he said.

Cheremsky isn't alone. Begun in September 2000, the Moscow English Conversation Club now attracts a regular membership of almost 60 people. In a December members' questionnaire, 43 percent of respondents said they get together with other members outside of club meetings.

"Most club members are not from Moscow. They're here working, mostly in different private firms," said Mojahid Mirza, a doctor and poet from Pakistan and one of the club's first members. "Here there is a double advantage. They can kill time making friends and also practice their English. Here there is no booze, no dancing, and people can just talk sense.

"Maybe some girl or boy is here wanting to find a partner," he said with a shrug. "What I do know, though, is that people are definitely making friends."

While palling around is the upshot, club coordinator Vyacheslav Ratnikov said the most popular reason for joining is professional advancement.

"English is a global language," he said. "Now we have a lot of foreign companies in Moscow, and for many people here, it's a dream to find a job in these companies. In almost all foreign companies, English is the working language."

The club meets three times a week in an oval lecture hall on Nikitsky Pereulok. Regular meetings consist of what Ratnikov calls "free conversation" -- the chairs are turned to face each other in small clusters. Last Saturday night, one group collected around a chessboard, another gathered near the cookies and coffee, and other groups just sat facing each other and talking.

"We don't try to organize people but give people freedom in their behavior here," Ratnikov said. The only rules are to keep the peace and speak in a foreign language -- in addition to English, chatter in French, German, Spanish and Italian can be heard.

"It's a good chance to practice another language because it is not reasonable to organize a Spanish club, for instance," Ratnikov said.

The club's membership is varied both professionally and ethnically, but the majority of members either study or work as teachers or IT specialists. The group's members hail from countries such as Australia, Vietnam, Cameroon, Pakistan, Ireland, Iran, Turkey, Britain and the United States as well as Russia.

"I was afraid in the beginning because of the mix of nationalities, but the club has had no tensions," Ratnikov said. "People communicate here about improving their English, earning money and sometimes about politics. Although discussions are sometimes ardent, they are always friendly."

U.S. white supremacist David Duke visited the club during the past year, and Mirza said his controversial opinions only added to lively debate among members.

The club's flexible format can be daunting for newcomers, though, who have not yet formed a close circle of friends within the group. In the December questionnaire, 21 percent of respondents said they experienced difficulties starting conversations during their first meeting.

Regular attendees also need a break sometimes from chatting.

"Sometimes people get bored because how much can you chat?" said Mirza. "Sometimes you need specific discussions, and for them you need specific people. For instance, sometimes if you want to talk about politics, you need a politician to come and speak."

Ratnikov has tried to vary club meetings by introducing entertainment, quizzes and debates. On holidays and birthdays, a discotheque, alcoholic drinks and seasonal activities -- such as pumpkin carving on Halloween -- enliven the regular routine.

Cheremsky also runs a small theater group within the club to write, rehearse and perform English-language plays.

MECC charges members 50 rubles for one-time attendance and 200 rubles per month; all dues go toward rent, tea, coffee and cookies. Native speakers can attend the club for free.

"Finding native speakers is a big problem," Ratnikov said. "Our people would like to have as many as possible. Attendance for them is free because we are particularly interested in attracting them."

The Moscow English Conversation Club meets Wednesdays from 7-10 p.m., Thursdays from 7-10 p.m. and Saturdays from 6-10 p.m. on the fourth floor of 4 Nikitsky Pereulok. For more information, call 778-6943 or visit the web site www.conversation.boom.ru.