Ellen Ford and Poliana Espindola chat over coffee, go to First Friday together and chat about what's going on in Knoxville. But these casual meetings aren't merely good conversation; they are good practice.

Ford and Espindola are part of the English Language Institute's Conversation Partners Program, which pairs international students with native English speaking students to expand their English vocabulary and learn more about American culture.

Ellen Ford, a senior in College Scholars, found the program through her Portuguese class last year. After visiting Brazil twice for research, Ford wanted to maintain her skills after returning home. Now, she meets with Espindola, from Brazil, who is working to improve her English to study nutrition.

Currently, Espindola only studies English at ELI. International students work with the ELI if their TOEFL score, the exam testing mastery of English as a foreign language, is too low to enroll in degree classes at the university. While involved with the ELI, students can live in dorms, get a VolCard and use all campus facilities. However, they cannot receive degree credit.

"In the fall, I'm going to take classes at UTK," Espindola said. "So I need to be prepared, and I would like to get English influence, make friends and to be immersed into American culture."

Beyond academic benefits, the program pushes students to bridge the gap between American and international students. For ELI students, that gap can be particularly wide.

"In past semesters, I've met and hung out with many of the undergraduate international students who attend university classes," Ford said. "But the students at ELI are more isolated. Poliana mentioned that within ELI, students typically get to know others who speak their native language but don't get the same opportunity to meet American students."

For many ELI students, the nuances of "street" English necessitate interpersonal practice.

"In the classroom, you're practicing mainly academic English," said Erin Smith, the Conversation Partners Program coordinator. "They're reading textbooks and focusing on grammar a lot. With a conversation partner, they get to learn how people their own age talk. It's much different from what they learn in the classroom. They get a lot of really useful vocabulary that way, I think."

The international student isn't the only beneficiary. When interested volunteers email her, Smith sends an application requesting the candidate's hobbies, availability and preferences regarding their partner's cultural background. She then compares these applications with the ELI's current pool of students and matches students accordingly, allowing both students access to a fluent speaker.

"Sometimes, I get people who are also practicing another language," Smith said. "So, maybe a French student would want to be matched with a French speaker, and then they can split the time: half in French and half in English. It's up to them what they want to get out of it."

Smith mentioned hearing of a student attending Thanksgiving dinner with his conversation partner.

"He came back with all these stories about all these things he had learned about American culture and American families that he would have never have learned without conversation partners," Smith said.

Similarly, Ford and Espindola communicate outside meeting times, drawing them closer over the last month.

"We also share music on Google docs, which has become a sort of homework for me. We've only known each other for a few weeks, but we're definitely friends."

Ford has become an outlet for Espindola to speak plainly about her difficulties with English and ask questions without embarrassment.

"It isn't monotonous or mechanical when we hang out," Espindola said. "Every time we meet each other is different and adorable. I do feel comfortable to ask her my doubts and questions about the idiomatic expressions or grammar, for example."

Ford expressed similar relief, having found someone to help improve her Portuguese before future trips to Brazil. The multiple connotations of certain words, for example, are not always included in university curriculums. By speaking with Espindola, Ford learned words and concepts she hadn't realized she might need to know.

"Speaking one-on-one with a native speaker for an hour forces you to stop worrying about constantly making mistakes," Ford said. "Conversation really fills in the gaps that typical classes leave.

"I really like this program because I can learn not just about the language but about culture and history and politics from someone who grew up surrounded by it."