Immigrants learn the language of Seattle at Talk Time program

English language learners and Talk Time volunteers meet up at the Seattle Public Library. (Photo by Lisa Nikolau)
English language learners and Talk Time volunteers meet up at the Seattle Public Library. (Photo by Lisa Nikolau)

Marina Salnikova has overcome many of the barriers she faced after arriving to the U.S. from Russia. She’s completed a bachelor’s degree, got her citizenship and is considering teaching ESL as a career. But, Salnikova says she is still affected by the language barrier.

It doesn’t matter how well you know English,” Salnikova said. “You will always be a foreigner.”

While Salnikova is determined not to let her label as a foreigner deter her, she is the first to admit that navigating Seattle can still be, for many immigrants, daunting.

And that’s why Salnikova is a volunteer at Talk Time, a gathering of English language learners from all over the globe who meet twice a week at the Central Library branch. Seattle Public Library also holds the program at various other branches.

Talk Time is aimed at foreigners in Seattle looking for low-key ways to practice their English speaking skills.  

Language barriers remain one of the most common hurdles to gainful employment. The language difficulties also compound the isolating effects of the so-called “Seattle freeze.”

Salnikova understands those barriers.

“It was hard, in the beginning,” said Salnikova, who first attended Talk Time over four years ago. “I was afraid to even ask [for help]. I was desperate.”

Along with its growing employment opportunities for immigrants, some of the most inclusive immigration programs in the country are in this area, including job placement programs and non-profit organizations like the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

The sessions are loosely planned, with volunteers guiding participants in small groups through new vocabulary and discussions on topics ranging from cuisine to superstitions. The participants compare each other’s cultures with great interest, delighting in stories of unfamiliar traditions like “lucky money” for Chinese New Year, or rolling around in a sea of tomatoes in celebration of La Tomatina in Spain.

Many of Seattle’s foreign-born language learners struggle to find a language program. Inconvenient transportation, family and job conflicts add frequent barriers to immigrants looking for an ESL program. Often, the programs are not frequently advertised in their native languages, so immigrants are not even aware that these resources exist.

“It takes a lot for someone facing a language barrier to find help that is available, particularly if that person does not have family or friends who can help them navigate,” said Meira Jough, who is the English as a Second Language and literacy coordinator at Seattle Public Library.

To many immigrants, having a social network at their destination is critical even before the relocation process begins, said Yoav Duman, lecturer on global immigration studies at the University of Washington.

“Seattle is in many ways off the radar unless you have a social network here,” Duman said. “Most people who emigrate to Seattle are not here for this city specifically. They’re here because their uncle owns a restaurant here, or because they’re an engineer and landed a job at Amazon.”

“So a lot of these immigrants end up here with little to go off of. They rely very heavily on the few contacts they do have to give them guidance.”

Talk Time is not the only program of its kind, but it does continue to steadily attract new participants. Some learners attend sessions at multiple branches, several times per week, for months or even years.

“Many community based organizations throughout the city also offer free ESL classes, citizenship classes, tutoring, and Talk Time,” Jough said. “But because the library is open to everyone and is a trusted resource in the community, we reach a broad audience.”

For more information on Seattle Public Library’s Talk Time sessions, call (206) 684-0849 or visit the Literacy, ESL and Citizenship Calendar page at