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How the Lancaster Language School helps people broaden their horizons

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 January 2016

Organisers Helen Walker and Mary Mitchell

Organisers Helen Walker and Mary Mitchell

glynn ward

Three quarters of UK adults can’t hold a conversation in a foreign language, but a cafe in Lancaster is helping to turn that around, writes Sue Riley

Spanish group Helen Bates, Frank Gurwood, Carolyn Morrison and Maureen Welth Spanish group Helen Bates, Frank Gurwood, Carolyn Morrison and Maureen Welth

IT was a tense meeting with a Spanish policewoman that made Pam McInnes decide to brush up her language skills. ‘We were in Majorca and we had a problem so I approached her. She told us off, she said ‘Senora, you must learn to speak Spanish’ and that frightened us into it!’ says Pam. Now she and husband Ian regularly attend a monthly language café in Lancaster where they get to chat in Spanish with whoever turns up – usually there’s a native speaker of the language or a teacher. They also attend a class but says the opportunity to practise speaking Spanish on a regular basis really helps and now they travel to less touristy parts of Spain so they can practise their language skills. ‘Pam is confident speaking and I am not. Mind you I am not that confident in English either,’ says Ian, a civil servant.

The café was set up by two local language teachers who hit upon the idea at exactly the same time. Mary Mitchell and Helen Walker said that at the end of a meeting at Lancaster’s Adult College they both started discussing language cafes they had spotted that summer – Helen’s was in Norwich and Mary’s in Lille. ‘We both had the same idea! We combined the two ideas and the language café was born,’ says Mary. The monthly sessions began in April 2013 and involve people sitting around a table (marked with flags) to speak their required language. A few months after the café was set up one of the members suggested British Sign Language could be added and now that’s one of the most popular tables – ’It’s also the quietest,’ says Mary, referring to the hubbub in the room created by more than 40 people chatting in different languages. The other popular ones are Spanish, French, German, Italian, Welsh and Portuguese. Groups in Preston and Carlisle soon followed.

Helen says she acts as a coordinator, emailing people to say when the event is on and ensuring the room is free – apart from that the cafes run themselves. In Lancaster the café is held at the Gregson Community Centre which provides the room for free. No-one gets paid and although donations are welcome – they pay for the food at the Christmas party – they are voluntary. With students taking A-Levels in foreign languages in steady decline and a British Council report revealing more than 75 per cent of UK adults can’t hold a conversation in another language, the numbers attending the café is both surprising and pleasing. ‘At the first session 80 people turned up! I enjoy the conversation and the fact that as a language teacher there are this many people. British people seem to think of themselves as non-linguists, quite lazy, so this is proof we can do it. It’s a way of celebrating it,’ says Helen.

Some people who attend are true linguists. Jacqueline Stamper can ‘get by’ in French, German and Italian but says her main language is Dutch and she is currently learning Danish on her Kindle as her son has moved to Copenhagen. She says Danish is the most difficult language to speak that she’s learnt so far so she welcomes the opportunity to practice. American-born Colleen Aldred, 35, who moved to the UK eight years ago with her British husband - is also learning Danish before a visit to Scandinavia. The café attracts people from across the city and outlying villages and as far afield as Lytham. Sometimes they have had people turn up wanting to speak Japanese or Russian but it all depends whether there are other speakers of that language. Both Mary and Helen will help out with the conversations but say they are not there to teach. ‘Sometimes a table will say they need a bit of guidance, we are making mistakes,’ says Mary, who is fluent in French, Spanish and Latin.

Sign language group Lesley Davidson, Judith Funnel, Rich Keen and Gill Ainsworth Sign language group Lesley Davidson, Judith Funnel, Rich Keen and Gill Ainsworth

The groups are often of mixed ages, from students through to retired. ‘One of the things we are both interested in is lifelong learning. As we age particularly speaking a foreign language helps keep your brain active and adds to the mental and physical health,’ says Helen. With so many colleges stopping evening language classes, pair says it’s often difficult to find a place to practise. ‘Sometimes people can’t afford a class either,’ says Mary, who says the café is free although they encourage people to buy a drink in the bar.

Gill Ainsworth attends the cafes to brush up her sign language. She has perfect hearing, but started learning when she worked alongside deaf tutors at college. ‘It’s a real mix here, from people who have started about six months ago to native speakers, people who are profoundly deaf. It’s different to the Deaf Clubs, the emphasis on those is social but here it’s learning the language. There’s no barriers because that’s what it’s here for.’

Helen, who teaches French, German and English, says it’s not for beginners as there’s no tuition and they want people to chat, so early intermediate to advanced skills are necessary. They also don’t encourage people who want to practise their English. ‘We had four or five foreign students one month so we set up an English table but we were advised that if we offered it to students learning English we would be overrun because it’s free so we tend to says it’s for foreign languages only,’ says Helen. A kafejo por cui….as they used to say in Esperanto.

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