At the English-Speaking Union, learning is a lifelong mission

By Joyce Reehling

Sometimes I am lucky enough to stumble into a very good thing. Upon leaving Connecticut we knew that one of the things we would miss most would be the exceptional speakers we went to hear at Fairfield University Open Visions Forum.

The proximity to New York and even Washington, D.C., plus very healthy funding by donors and businesses brought truly great personalities from every possible walk of life. Nothing quite like it was here, or so I thought.

Then I saw that one of my favorite people, Thomas Jefferson, would be speaking in Pinehurst (in the guise of Bill Barker from Colonial Williamsburg), and off I went to get tickets-except that he was coming to the English-Speaking Union, members only. Who the heck were they?

I first feared that it would be folks who thought only English should be spoken in our country, but that is not the case. Nor is it a “dining club for the elite,” as some have said, even though they dine together.

No, E-SU has a history, and a deep and abiding set of principles and purposes.

Sir Evelyn Wrench founded this international education charity in 1918 with the aim of bringing together people from different cultures and languages to find a way to build skills, confidence and communication. The intention was to use a common language, English, to further knowledge, understanding and peace and to provide these skills in a non-political and non-sectarian way.

In 1957, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the royal patron and E-SU received a royal charter. Princess Ann took over from Prince Phillip and serves as the present patron.

All very nice as far as that goes for those of us in “the Colonies,” but the real job of our E-SU here in the States and around the world is to foster the learning of English as a tool for those who come from elsewhere, as well as our own students.

I came for the speakers and have stayed for the real work of E-SU, helping middle school teachers and students thrive in debate training throughout their school years as E-SU has fostered — along with their schools — strong teams in several schools across Moore County. They enter our annual competition and may go on to further debates nationally.

We also sponsor and present the annual Shakespeare competition, where high school students study Shakespeare and perform a sonnet and a monologue from his plays.

These skills give young students insight, skill and the ability to study, listen well and present themselves in a public format. No matter what technology does for us, everyone needs to garner these skills, find like-minded folks and continue our learning path all through our lives.

At its headquarters in New York City, English in Action puts people together who can assist new learners in both language and cultural understanding, helping them find the assets they need to turn their lives into productive and exciting ones here while learning to speak English. Whether by choice or fleeing war, whether young or old, these people need help learning English and American culture. E-SU in NYC does that because we believe that common language is essential.

Learning skills to become an American with English are not vastly different from the skills children need to leave home and find their way in the world. Language, listening, communicating clearly and being able to define what you believe and who you are are the things I think E-SU does for new arrivals and for our kids right here at home.

The Luard Morse Scholarships help students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities study at a British university for a semester. The Walter Hines Page Scholarship offers British and Argentine teachers a chance to explore and exchange educational ideas in America.

E-SU also offers extra training in the UK for an array of courses to help bolster teachers and their constant need to be refreshed and reinvigorated for the task of teaching.

As to the “dinner club” thing, yes, it is true that we gather for dinner or lunch, but the real purpose is for us to learn from a series of speakers we bring to Pinehurst or have on our own front door step. In the past, we have hosted some gifted writers like Lynne Olson, who wrote the New York Times best-seller Citizens of London, and Craig Johnson, who writes the wonderful Longmire series of stories of law in the wilds of present day Wyoming.

We gather for international speakers as well, like Dieter Dettke, an expert on European security and Euro-Russian relations; Hodding Carter, journalist and a former spokesman for the U.S. State Department during our hostage crisis in the 1970s; and Capt. Carl Newman (now retired), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deputy Director for Aircraft Operations, who did 14 years of hurricane hunter flights in one of the world’s premiere research aircraft. These are a sampling, a very few, of the men and women who come to help us be lifelong learners.

A charity that focuses on making learning a keystone of life, keeping English as a gateway to knowledge and communication without destroying other languages or cultures, and above all supporting our teachers and students, that is what the English-Speaking Union turns out to be.

And now, many months of the year Darling Husband and I hear fine speakers while we support our devotion to learning. The funds raised by our Sandhills branch plant deep roots right here and in the world.  PS

Learn more about E-SU and its programs for students and teachers by emailing 

Joyce Reehling is a frequent contributor and good friend of PineStraw.

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