Geographically speaking, Plymouth is a short distance from the mainland. By boarding a ferry, you could be in France or Spain in a matter of hours.
It is because of our proximity to foreign countries and the port of Plymouth that the city lends itself to other languages spoken here. And Plymouth University’s Language Cafe perfectly embraces this.
It has been in business for over a decade now and is the perfect place to learn a new language. Located in the Cookworthy Building of the University of Plymouth Business School in the city centre, those wishing to converse in a language other than their native can do so at the Language Cafe every Wednesday.
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It is open to anyone who wants to try a new dialect or even deepen what they already know. Naturally, students whose first language is not English go there to perfect their English. However, a plethora of languages can be heard floating through the room, from Italian to French and Spanish.
Tea, coffee and biscuits are offered as Margaret Russell, who runs the cafe, wants to make the atmosphere as relaxed as possible. Margaret herself and fluent in Italian – she lived there for over 20 years. She studied modern languages in Pisa and the pull of Italy was too great to ignore, so she decided not to return home.
Originally from Leicester, she followed her parents to the South West after returning from Italy. Now, she hopes to inspire those who walk through the cafe’s doors to fully embrace a new language, which, in turn, will open many doors for them.
“The Languages Café has been around for over 10 years now, it was initially run by a colleague of mine and then I took over about three or four years ago,” she said. “At this time we were in Robin’s conference center which is directly opposite Cookworthy.
“I think we can learn so much from cultural differences and being able to speak a language opens so many doors for you. Having a space like this is great because it means people can be social too.”
After the lockdown, it was decided they wanted a change of scenery as the room they previously used in the conference center was actually in a windowless basement. The pandemic caused the cafe to close which was a big blow as before that they had seen a steady increase in attendance. Now, coming out the other side of a UK-wide shutdown, Margaret can see the numbers go back to what they once were, which is a smile.
She said: “Because of Covid we had an online meeting, but coming out of Covid I wanted to try face-to-face meetings. The head of the business school said they would love to have us and that’s how we ended up here.
“I also didn’t know how many people would actually come to meetings in person, because I think we’ve all gotten used to doing things online now.
“Online we had about 12 or 13 people and although it was a small number it was pretty consistent and I just didn’t want to lose them if we went back to face-to-face meetings. Some of them are here today, which is good. Before the lockdown we had around 20 or 30 people, now we’re back to around 15 so we’re slowly growing again.
The room is set up so that each table has its designated language. Of course you are encouraged to speak that language as much as you can, but Maureen laughs “you won’t get bored if you speak English at one of the tables”.
After familiarizing myself with the structure, I introduced myself to some tables. I spoke to a lady who is fluent in Spanish after living in Madrid for 16 years. She is also the leader of the University of the Third Age (an older group that is still involved in language teaching in one way or another). Members of this community make up a large contingent of those who frequent the Café
I was about to become living proof that despite being able to offer little or nothing to the conversation, I was able to pick up words or phrases from certain sentences just by listening. Despite being my country of birth, I must confess that I don’t have a solid understanding of the Spanish language.
I was asked (in Spanish) if I was a university student. A confused look was enough to translate my incomprehension, I was asked again but this time the words came out more slowly. I understood enough to know that I was being asked questions about college, but I didn’t know what, in a hurry, I answered “no”.
She said: “That’s the problem with our meetings. If you don’t know the language well enough, you can come here and you can just sit and listen to the conversation. I think it can be extremely beneficial for people because that you will absorb things that way and integrate things.”
Chris explained that learning the language is much easier now than when she was in school. She said: “Nowadays, if you wanted to, you could go to YouTube and learn different languages. There are also apps you can learn with, like Duolingo. I’m learning German now and I do most learning on the bus. It’s really easy because I can go at my own pace.
People of all ages and abilities are encouraged by Maureen and other speakers who go there to come and try it for themselves on Wednesday afternoons from 1pm.
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