McKenzie McBride sets the timer and places her phone on the table: It’s time for 30 minutes of Spanish.
“What do you do for Christmas?” the California native asks her Mexican language partner, Neyvi Loaeza, in Spanish, sitting beside her in a library study room.
“Normally we get together with my family — my uncles and aunts, cousins, and make Mexican food,” Loaeza says in Spanish. “Sometimes tamales, sometimes pozole, something like that.”
McBride and Loaeza will chat casually like this until the timer dings to indicate it’s time to switch to 30 minutes of speaking in English.
It’s their third or fourth time meeting as part of Jackson Hole’s Language Exchange program, which pairs English- and Spanish-speaking partners for a chance to practice their non-native language.
“I think both of us are pretty shy, especially in the language that we’re learning,” said McBride, 24, who works at Teton Literacy Center. “So this is an opportunity where it’s a safe space that we can both practice and be comfortable.”
The program began in 2012 at Central Wyoming College, but Teton County Library and the Teton Literacy Center signed on in 2015.
The Teton Literacy Center’s Lina Collado said 30 pairs were matched this year, up from only 14 last year, marking the program’s highest enrollment yet.
The increased enrollment can be attributed to the Teton Literacy Center adding language exchange to its curriculum for families. Fourteen parents who work with the Literacy Center also have language partners, including Loaeza.
Participants in the program fill out an application detailing their proficiency level in the language they’re learning, as well as times they’re available to meet and their hobbies and interests.
Program organizers work some matchmaking magic and introduce the pairs. After that participants are on their own to organize their weekly language exchange sessions.
Another new pair matched this fall was Kia Mosenthal, 28, and Mily Cruz, 24.
“I wanted to practice my Spanish, and with the growing Latino community here I wanted to be able to speak more to other members of the community,” Mosenthal said.
Cruz said improving her fluency in English could help her go to college or secure a better job. Mosenthal said that at her job at Teton Science Schools, developing her Spanish skills will allow her to connect with more students and their families.
Some longtime language partners already have such success stories. Lori Clark-Erickson, 65, has been meeting with her partner, Francisca Martinez, for two years. Now, their two hours together each week are a chance to hang out with a good friend.
Erickson, who used to work in the school district, was even able to help Martinez move into a new job in food service with the schools.
“Her goal was to get a different job, but she needed more English,” Erickson said. “I was able to help her get a different job at the school district. That has been really, really exciting for all of us — her family and me.”
Language Exchange goes beyond practice speaking and also serves as a cultural exchange. Cruz said sometimes she doesn’t know how things work in the U.S., and she’ll ask Mosenthal to explain the university system or food or customs.
“I’m going to know more about the reality in the USA,” Cruz said.
Rachel Attias, who helps run the program with the library, said it breaks down barriers in the community.
“There’s a lot of language self-segregation that happens in Jackson,” Attias said, “so this is a way to break down that wall.”
Mosenthal agreed, saying she’s grateful for the opportunity to have met Cruz.
“We wouldn’t really run into each other normally in this town, so it’s a good way to bridge that divide,” she said.
Loaeza, a 34-year-old housekeeper, found the Language Exchange through the Teton Literacy Center, where she and her daughter attend programs. Learning English, she said, is “indispensable” in a lot of contexts, like at work or at school for her kids’ parent-teacher meetings.
“You go to the meetings with teachers, and they talk to you in English and you don’t understand anything,” Loaeza said.
At first she was nervous about throwing herself into English conversations, but now she’s glad she did. She’s happy that McBride has given her more confidence in her language skills.
“If I say something wrong she helps me say the words correctly,” Loaeza said, “and we work together so that it’s easier to talk with other people.”
For McBride, who studied Spanish throughout school and as her college major, meeting with Loaeza gives her a chance to maintain her skills, build confidence and meet someone new.
“The most important message that we give people is that we’re really focusing on communicating to the best of our ability and understanding each other,” Attias said. “So you don’t have to be perfect.
“It’s OK to make grammar mistakes or to not know vocabulary as long as we’re striving to just create understanding.”
Some pairs meet in the study rooms at the library. But others end up going to each other’s homes for tea, sharing hobbies like baking or gardening together or grabbing a beer after work.
A number of pairs have ended up staying friends and requesting to be rematched year after year.
“If you meet once a week and practice once a week, not only will your language improve but you will also make incredible connections,” Collado said.