Learning a language on your own is great. However one of the most important things to practise is speaking with others. When you meet someone from that country, they are going to judge you by your ability to have a conversation with them. Therefore one of the most important things to practise is having conversations.
I also prefer them because I like speaking with people in a free and relaxed way.
How to set up a language café
The first thing you need is 5-6 people who will commit to come every meeting. This doesn’t mean that they will come every time, some of them will never come, some will come some weeks, while others will come almost every time. Really you want to have at least 3 people come even on the quietest of meetings.
Create a facebook group and a mailing list, on the facebook group create a facebook event for each event you do, and remind the people on the facebook group and the mailing list. If you can also leave a flyer or the poster in the place where you do the event.
How often should you meet?
We’ve found that if it’s in the evening once every two weeks is a good amount. If you’re meeting in the day and there are retired people or other people who are free in the day then it’s a good idea to meet once a week.
I know some groups who meet once a month but in my opinion this makes it harder to create a community atmosphere.
When should you meet?
Whenever is best for the core people who will come most often.
Who is it for?
Make it clear that the events are for intermediate speakers and above. For the French group people are expected to converse in French, if people want to come but are not comfortable with this then you should recommend that they do a beginner’s or intermediate course first. This may seem unwelcoming but you have to make this clear from the outset, otherwise you run the risk of the cafés turning into an English speaking social event, which is exactly what you don’t want.
Where should you meet?
If you meet in the day then in a coffeeshop, ideally well located, close to a train station or bus routes. It’s better if it’s quite trendy and if they will also let you leave flyers or put up a notice. In general a hip independent coffeeshop is the best.
If you’re meeting in the evening I would still recommend a trendy coffeeshop as long as they’re open and as long as they sell beer. In the evening some people will want to drink tea or coffee, others will want to drink beer, this way the event can cater for those wanting to experience it differently. If you can’t find a trendy coffeeshop in the evening, then the next best bet is an independent bar, failing that any pub without loud music.
Doing special events.
Meeting for a coffee is all well and good, but to attract more people and also to give people a memorable experience it’s a good idea to do some special events. It’s also good that for each of these special events there are two reasons for people to come. Some ideas:
Countryside walks: fit these in with local landmarks or places of interest.
Arrange to meet in the most famous or easiest place to find. We normally did this on a Sunday at midday, but if you want to join it in with the local shops it’s also an option to meet at 2pm on a Saturday. You want to organise the events so that they are the easiest for you to organise. So if you are doing a Sunday walk, with a midday meet, then tell everyone to bring their own packed lunch. Organise with one of the regulars to meet up a few days before you’re due to do the walk and to walk it yourselves, this then prepares you for any unexpected circumstances on the walk, it also gets other people involved in organising things.
Picnic + sport demonstration and game
At 2pm on a Sunday organise a picnic in a nice local park, we would also incorporate some game to demonstrate, we’ve done this twice with cricket, both times this has been great fun and has given people another reason to come along.
Evening event with music
If there is anyone in the group who can play guitar get them to do an informal sing-a-long in a small back room of a local pub. This worked very well for the French group I’m involved in. Me and another guy can both play the guitar so we practised 3-4 songs together on 2 occasions, then we printed the lyrics out for the songs we were going to sing 10-15 times and gave them out at the event. This way a French conversation evening became a lot more memorable because there was also a French sing-a-long.
Combine the special events with other language groups
Whether there are other language groups in the same town or in other towns wherever possible make these special events a joint event, that way you it is a lot easily to get a good crowd.
Dealing with natives
Native speakers at language cafés are very valuable, but they have to be treated in a particular way to want them to keep coming back. I try and be friendly to them and treat them like another member of the group, that way they are invited to feel more relaxed and part of the gang. Some people will want to ask them how to say every other word, interrupting them if they’re not in the conversation to ask them. This is not ideal but steps can be taken so they’re not treated so uniquely and so they can enjoy the event more. I try and speak with them normally and engage in good and natural conversations with them. By being pro-active in this you set a good example to the rest of the group just to talk normally.
The seating is important, as is an open nice surrounding. If possible try and have it so there’s lots of chairs and not that many tables, with opportunities for people to move their chairs so they can talk with more people. If you have too much table space it can make the event more rigid and also make it more difficult for people to have conversations with different people.
It’s also a lot better for people to be squashed together than to have space.
What’s the aim?
One of the most important things is not to forget what I call the bigger picture. Yes, you want to learn and practise the language but the bigger aim is to communicate and have a nice time with the people. This is the whole reason for learning the language, so don’t forget it. If you concentrate on communicating with the people there and having a nice time, then the other people there will have a nice time too and then they’ll enjoy it more and want to keep on coming.
I hope these tips are useful and I wish you all success in organising your language cafés.