When and where? Twice a month, in The Old Windmill pub on Spon Street every first Sunday of the month and in Esquires Café in the Transport Museum every third Sunday, from 3-5pm.
Who? There are usually between 15 and 20 people, but more than 700 people have registered online.
What happens? The Cafe always has English, French, German and Spanish. Other languages come up now and again. You can make arrangements online to learn a particular language. (At the event I went to there was Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Romanian, Indonesian, Punjabi…those are only the ones I remember!)
My Contact: Murielle Galvani
I visit the café when they have a special event for Coventry’s Positive Images Festival – a multicultural festival of different events all over the city. Tables around the room have cards on them, naming different languages you can learn from the people sitting there. I see someone I recognise and go over to the ‘Indonesian’ table to talk to Tiurl, as Murielle who runs the café is busy organising and welcoming people.
Tiurlan tells me that she was already a member of the ‘Meet Up’ website in Indonesia, so when she came to Coventry she looked for a group and found the Language Café. It’s the first I’ve heard about ‘Meet Up’, a global, online register of groups. I make a mental note to check it out.
“I’m interested in languages, so I joined.” says Tiurl.
“That was in 2009. I had nothing to do in my small room, so I had to go out and find things. I enjoy learning, even if it’s just to say ‘hello’.”
I ask Tiurl what she likes about the group. She tells me you can arrange things easily and cancel if something comes up, so you don’t let anyone down.
“Easy to contact and easy to subscribe is important I think.”
I know Tiurl is an accomplished linguist, with many languages under her belt. She is also an academic. I want to know if she is typical of the kind of person who uses the Language Café.
She tells me there are a variety of people, but many are students and most are middle class – they have the time, energy and interest – but she tells me about a girl who came here with only English who has now learnt Spanish. I’m impressed. I’d got the feeling that the Cafe was more about trying out languages and socialising than becoming fluent. I guess people come for different reasons? Tiurl agrees.
“There are people who just come to practise languages they already know, that they don’t want to lose.”
So then I learn some Indonesian!
Good morning – Salamat pagi
Good afternoon – Salamat siang
Sudah mekan? – Have you eaten? It’s used in the way we use ‘How are you?’ when you first see someone that day.
“If you say ‘no’” says Tiurl “I might feed you!”
I ask about writing, but Indonesian apparently has no script, no gendered pronouns and no tenses either! ‘Sudah’ is a prefix that indicates you are talking about the past. I can see that the language around languages can require a good education to follow!
This opens up a discussion about features of languages, a subject that always fascinates me – what can you tell about a culture from the ideas embedded and expressed within the structure of their speech? I’m particularly fascinated by cultures which have no gendered pronouns – no ‘he’ or ‘she’ or posessives ‘his’ or ‘her’. Are those cultures more gender fluid, less chauvinistic or prescriptive about gender roles?
However, Murielle is free. Now the room is full of people talking animatedly in around ten different languages, it feels like a good time to speak to her.
I ask how the group started and Murielle tells me that she was a member of a language café in France, where she lived before. She started there as part of her degree for a year, then carried on afterwards.
“When I settled here in the UK, I wanted to start a similar group. I didn’t know how to begin and it was around five years before someone suggested Meet-Up and that was when the group really began, in 2009. After that, I joined the Positive Images Festival group, which helped in advertising the group. It was also really nice to contribute to something bigger in the city.”
We talk about the success of the Cafe, which in 2012 received an award for Community Cohesion.
“I felt all people were interested in, funding wise, was which group of people you were working with.”
“Which box you could tick?”
“Yes, but because we tick all the boxes (we have members from all religions, sexual orientations, nationalities, genders) I felt people didn’t value it as much. It was really difficult to apply for funding because I couldn’t tick just one box…When I got the award, I thought – YES! England does recognise that ‘mixed community’ thing! So I was really pleased.”
I ask Murielle about the mix of people. She says she’d like more non-European language speakers to regularly be part of the group, but it hasn’t happened. As the face of the Language Café, Murielle jokes that Africa or Middle Eastern people should know they are welcome from her photo (she is of African heritage, and although Christian, she wears a head-scarf for religious reasons and it’s often assumed she’s Muslim).
We go on to talking about the cultural value of the group.
“It’s breaking down stereotypes. Meeting real people and learning from real people what their culture is like, rather than just what you’ve got in the media. When you talk about culture you hear about food, dance, that kind of thing and I find often it’s reinforcing stereotypes.”
Does the group contribute to British culture?
“Yes! People come here wanting to improve their English and it helps with integration. A Chinese student who came to the group was about to leave to return to China, without ever having seen an English persons house, so a member of the group invited them into their home.”
“I’m a teacher in Secondary School and I’ve had this list given to me of British Values I have to teach in school. I looked at them and said, ‘These are not British values, these are values everywhere!’ A group of British teachers raised the point that we should be teaching anti-oppressive values rather than repeating that constant rhetoric about Britain being the only democratic country with values. People believe this – that this is the only country where you’ve got freedom! That has to stop.”
“At the multi-cultural picnic we organise, the first Sunday in June, each time I feel like I’m in heaven: All people, all nations, languages, cultures, religions are together. It’s like heaven to me. If we want to live like that in eternity, we need to start living it now. (Revelations: chapter 7, verse 9).”
If you’d like to join the Coventry Language Café or find other groups, use the following link to Meet Up’s website: