17 January 2024

From too nervous to expert service - how language changed this mother's life

| Morgan Kenyon
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Sonu smiling in front of cafe menu board

Sonu Sharma is a mother of two who loves the garden and a little light gossip. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Just nine months ago, Sonu Sharma was so anxious to speak in public that her children had to order her morning coffee. Today, she serves it herself.

The move to Australia from Sonu’s hometown of Ludhiana, India, was a difficult one. Upon moving to Canberra in 2021, she felt overwhelmed when she realised that, although she could already read and write English, speaking and understanding the language was far more difficult than she’d anticipated.

Going from an active and social life in Ludhiana, spending time with family and volunteering in care homes, food gardens and local temples, to feeling completely isolated in her Whitlam home, left Sonu at a loss.

“The Australian accent can be hard to figure out,” Sonu says.

“People in Canberra like to talk quickly and use a lot of slang. Even though I knew English basics, talking with native speakers made me nervous because I was never sure if I understood everything they were saying.

“For a long time, I just stayed home, which was very lonely. I couldn’t really connect with anyone because I was so afraid to sound foolish.”

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Sonu’s children often had to speak for her in public – buying groceries and ordering a morning coffee became a stressful ordeal.

In April 2023, Sonu started to join in on local Mingle-run community activities in Whitlam. Eventually, she felt ready to give speaking English another try.

The Mingle program encourages new residents to connect with each other and become more involved in their community. Through the program, Sonu discovered English classes run by Woden Community Service (WCS), and nine months later, she speaks clearly and confidently.

WCS community development officer Anna Howell speaks very highly of Sonu and the determination she has shown. The two have a deep friendship, one they say formed thanks to their cultural differences rather than in spite of them.

Anna notes that Sonu now speaks Punjabi, Hindi and English. Only a fifth of Australians can speak more than one language, let alone three.

“Sonu is a beautiful, bright light,” Anna says.

“She’s an inspiration and far more intelligent than she gives herself credit for – speaking three languages is quite the feat.

“When I first met her, Sonu had very little confidence. Now she works at Whitlam’s Heartbeat Café, a social enterprise café run by Woden Community Service, serving customers and interacting with a great many people. Everyone who meets her leaves with a smile.”

Sonu and Anna smiling together

Anna advocated for Sonu to join Heartbeat Cafe, a social enterprise cafe helping young and vulnerable people build life and employment skills. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

As her first-ever job, working at the café has given Sonu a new zest for life in Canberra. She was hired on her birthday and says it was the best birthday gift she’s ever received.

“I believe in myself more now than I ever have,” she says.

“It’s far easier to connect with people from all backgrounds. I have made plenty of friends and even swap plants from my home with other ladies in the community garden.

“Family is so important, but they can’t be the only people you see. Heartbeat Café has given me the kindness and support I needed to learn and practice English far more than I could have on my own.”

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Sonu plans to explore different areas of the hospitality industry that she feels suit her personality well. To other Canberrans looking to start their English learning journey or improve their current skill level, she says go for it.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out around your community and see what lessons are out there. Learning a second language is difficult, especially as an adult, but it’s worth it.

“Being able to speak, read and write at a conversation level will open up so many doors of opportunity for you. Believe in yourself and good luck!”

Jump online to find out more about Mingle programs in the ACT.

If you would like to work on your English, check out English Conversation Classes with Woden Community Service.

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