Did you take German in college? Can you still count to ten? Eins…zwei…drei…umm…
Arguably the scariest thing about learning another tongue is how quickly you can forget it, leaving you pretty much right back where you started.
Classic advice is: “The easiest way to learn a language is to live somewhere where people speak it.”
But those of us with jobs and lives not so easily moved abroad needn’t give up on the idea of practicing other cultures.
Foreign language conversation tables–regular scheduled informal meetings for people to practice languages other than English–offer vibrant and open communities for Seattleites to tap into.
“There are no rules,” says Juan Carlos Ocampo, a freelance medical interpreter originally from Peru. “You walk in, people will greet you. You look confused. ‘!Hola!’. An ‘Hola’ will do it.”
Every Sunday night, Ocampo attends a weekly Spanish conversation group at Barça, a bar in Capitol Hill. About 60 people, ranging from beginners and native speakers, show up each week to practice Ocampo’s mother tongue. He says newcomers are encouraged, and about half of each night’s attendees are new to the group.
Conversation topics range from the advanced fluency needed to discuss Latin American politics to the basic level necessary to tell someone her red sweater is pretty.
Besides Spanish, there are many regular French, German, Italian, Swedish, and other language-learning chats throughout the city.
Speaking upwards of five languages, Mustafa al-Gamal, a UW alum, says that though he doesn’t need to significantly better his French anymore, he still frequents the tables.
“I believe that life is give and take. What we know, people gave us sometime in the past. You have to pass that on,” he says.
Al-Gamal first used the conversation groups as a way to connect with people when he moved to Seattle from New York City eight years ago. He says he met three of his close friends through language tables.
“It’s not the language itself, it’s the fact that you’re going to meet people.”
Ocampo also used the tables as a way to find people in a new city. Moving here from Atlanta in 2011, he knew only one Seattleite before hauling his packed car across the country.
He says first thoughts upon wondering how he would make friends, driving over the I-90 bridge, arriving, were: “Hey, I’m in Seattle, a crazy vibrant city, and this group will offer me a lot.”
While he speaks both Spanish and English most work days, Ocampo says that he mainly expresses other peoples’ thoughts for his job as an interpreter, so the Spanish conversation events offer a space for him to convey his own.
The tables adopt characteristics of the cultures they honor, says Kim Janos, a Seattle native and a regular at French, Portuguese, and Spanish tables.
“They kind of transport you a bit, each one definitely has it’s own dynamic,” Janos says. “I like the communal vibe of our language tables here, it reminds me of being in Europe.”
Still, both Janos and al-Gamal agree that Seattle needs more language tables.
“It takes someone to do the initial organizing,” Janos says. “ Once organized, the table gets momentum, and the organizer eventually doesn’t always have to be there.”
Hearing the unique ways different people pick up their non-native tongues is one of Janos’ favorite elements of the tables.
“Everybody has their different modality of learning a language,” she says. “When I lived in France, I became fluent in French in four months by reading a chapter of a French book aloud every night.”
Janos, Ocampo, and al-Gamal all agree that the tables are incredibly welcoming to new people, whether native speakers or fresh beginners. And, above all, they all help their members learn and celebrate heritage when geographic roots are not underfoot.
Where and when to go:
Spanish at Barca, Sundays at 7:30
1510 11th Avenue Seattle
French at the 15th Coffee and Tea, Wednesdays at 7pm
328 15th Avenue E, Seattle
Japanese at Harbor city, Thursdays at 7pm
707 S King St, Seattle, WA
German at The Continental Greek Restaurant, Tuesdays at 7pm
Spanish at The Continental Greek Restaurant, Thursdays at 7pm
4549 University Way Ne, Seattle
Swedish, Portuguese, Chinese, German, and many other language groups are also available through meetup.com. Just search your language of choice within five miles of Seattle. The results will ask that you submit a request to join the group. Upon approval, you’ll receive weekly updates of various meeting times and group events.