The Café de las Lenguas has brought UG students and staff together for informal language practice for ages. But two years of covid restrictions have thinned out the community.
It’s Thursday evening and there’s a hubbub of voices coming from the Harmony building’s canteen. The tables are decorated with national flags representing the languages the attendees want to practise: Dutch, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese.
This is the Café de las Lenguas, or language café, which offers students and others who are interested the opportunity to informally practise a language. The most popular table tonight is the one marked by the Dutch flag. With a dozen people chatting cheerfully, it isn’t clear who’s the native speaker and who’s still learning it. A few tables over, there’s three people practising Chinese. The Spanish table is empty.
That surprises Steven Wan, who teaches at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) and has been coming here regularly since 2017 to practice German and Japanese. ‘The Spanish table used to be extremely popular. And for some reason, there’s no one around the German table either.’
It’s the fifth Café de las Lenguas since the university began relaxing Covid restrictions, but the language learners haven’t found their way back to the canteen yet. Instead of the usual hundred, the volunteers welcome barely thirty people.
‘The online alternative wasn’t a big success, but when we were able to return on site for a short period last autumn, we still had around ninety people coming every time’, says volunteer Sandra Langendijk, who works at FSE as a matching and numerus fixus staff member. ‘And we didn’t even put up adverts that much back then. Now, we’re actively using our social media accounts.’
Her fellow volunteer Robbert den Hollander thinks the most likely reason for the low attendance is the duration of the restrictions. ‘People find out about us through word of mouth, and after we’ve missed two years of on-site events, those who were introduced by their friends couldn’t bring in new attendees.’
They’re missing out, says Steven. ‘It’s such a good place to practise languages, but also to socialise with people who are open-minded about languages and cultures. I’ve made quite a few friends here.’
Nevertheless, the volunteers aren’t going to sit back and wait for the word to spread on its own, they say. To catch people’s interest, some of the meetings now have a special theme, like King’s Day or Ukrainian culture.
‘We’ve already invited a Ukrainian teacher who will lead a workshop for those who’d like to learn more about Ukrainian culture or even learn some words’, says volunteer and master student of business administration Kim Shamal Carbone.
But sometimes it just takes a bit of time before language lovers dare join the meetings. New attendee Claudia Reyes San Martin from Chile first heard of the café in 2018, but was too shy to come along then, she says. ‘I was busy with my internship and also not very comfortable with my English at the time.’
Now that she’s doing her PhD in biomedical engineering, it’s hard to practise her Dutch, because of the international environment she works in. ‘I need some more exposure to Dutch and at different levels.’
Even though she was ‘a bit afraid’ of possible awkward silences, she’s found that ‘people have been very friendly and very open’. And she’s made progress in her spoken Dutch, too. ‘At first, I was looking for my words and trying to connect sentences, but after almost two hours I feel more comfortable to speak fluently’, she says. ‘And I will definitely come back.’
The Café de las Lenguas is every Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. on the second floor of the Harmony building canteen. Meetings are free. The Ukrainian culture event is scheduled for May 12.