Every Wednesday night at the Rivoli, the bar is crowded with a hundred people enjoying a drink. But it is not the Rivoli’s usual entertainment of live music and seminal comedy that is attracting all of the people. The conversation is the entertainment.
Over a drink, a couple will sit down by a table and attempt to speak French, with “Bonjour” being the only word they both know. And at the bar, a newcomer to Toronto will yell with a smile “Sim, eu falo Portuguê.” (Yes, I do speak Portuguese), while a group of Japanese students speak in broken English about skating for the first time at the Harbourfront Centre.
This is the Toronto Babel, where people gather to expose themselves to different cultures and learn different languages.
“[The Toronto Babel’s] goal is to practise whatever language you are interested in…We do not discriminate against other languages. It is a multi-language group,” said Anna Shalaginova, the co-organizer of the meet-up at the Rivoli.
Since April 2010, the Babel has attracted a diverse group due to its enjoyable and relaxed environment where newcomers gather to improve their English, and other languages. The meet-up is located on the upper level and is isolated from the dining area. It is free to attend, with the exception of drinks, and the use of a pool table for $8.00 per hour.
The concept has the approval of language expert Karen McCrindle, interim director of the Centre for French and Linguistics at University of Toronto.
“It’s more about bringing the language alive to the students,” McCrindle said. “If you’re only teaching grammar and vocabulary and students don’t have exposure to the real, living language people use, the less interested they will be in it.”
Shalaginova believes that learning in a classroom provides structure by giving you the basics that you can expand from. But some people need more than just grammar or vocabulary.
“I think taking classes is an essential component of learning a language. And Toronto Babel provides a good complement. It doesn’t replace going to a classroom, but I think it works well together,” she said, adding that attendees don’t require good grammar to be let in.
Kenny Tripura is from Bangladesh. A first time attendee at Babel, he has been in Canada since 2006, arriving with his family for a better education. He previously went to an English school in Bangladesh where he learned the basics of English and grammar. When he came to Canada, Tripura, 22, realized he didn’t have a high level of proficiency in English, or in French.
“[The organizer] introduced me to a bunch of his French-speakers. I was talking to them in English basically. So I was asking them for a few phrases which could [be translated] in French so I could speak them,” Tripura said.
International social events such as the Toronto Babel —and similar ones that have started in Ottawa and elsewhere in Ontario– may not be enough to become proficient in a language, as experts say written communication is also important. But McCrindle acknowledges that language learning can’t only be taught through books.
“It’s real communication and communication is not just the words that you speak but gestures, facial expressions, inclination, so in order to … be competent in a language one really needs to be exposed to those factors,” McCrindle said.
Shalaginova takes advantage of the social setting at Babel to preserve her Russian origins and maintain her French, because although Toronto is an incredibly diverse city, it does not always give her the opportunity to speak her Russian mother tongue every day.
Mohammad Valipour has attended a dozen Babel meet-ups. Originally from Iran, he has been in Toronto for 11 months. His goals at the Babel are to improve his Japanese, because his room mates are Japanese, as well as learn French and Korean.
“At first I wanted to learn Japanese from YouTube and writing, but it’s too different when you speak to native people and you listen to their dialect because they have too many dialects,” said Valipour, 31.
Valipour was a nurse back in Iran, and he aspires to become one in Canada. He hopes to take a Japanese language course in the future, but in the meantime Valipour is taking advantage of the language opportunities at the Babel.
Such ambitious plans are admirable, and, according to professor McCrindle, sometimes attainable, especially for multilingual people, who she said have an easier time picking up yet another language. But she cautions that being truly immersed in a language and having a high level of motivation are the keys to language proficiency.
“[When] someone is in [a] language for an extended period of time, [that] makes a huge difference… It forces someone to really function in that language,” she said.
Still, putting aside specific times to learn the language is a good practice, McCrindle advised.
“It doesn’t happen naturally. You have to really make an effort and say ‘I am going to spend this amount of time regularly’ to focus on it, and make very specific goals,” she said.