A handful of people sit around a table in a café in downtown Jerusalem – their espressos and lattes in front of them. They are chatting in Spanish – every few minutes laughter bubbles up from the table.
It looks like a group of friends meeting for coffee after work. But it is a meeting of Talk Café – a drop-in language learning program that aims to get people talking in whatever language they wish to speak more fluently – Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and German are all offered in Jerusalem.
“Talk Café is a way we found to allow people who know a language, either because they’ve lived in a country to know it from home, to improve in an informal way in a social setting,” Moshe Beigel, the founder of Talk Café told The Media Line. “It gives people the ability to talk without making a fool of themselves.”
Students pay $13 per class to Talk Café, as well as order at least a cup of coffee in the restaurant. The drop-in idea is to accommodate busy schedules, Beigel says. The restaurants benefit as well from customers in the slow periods of the late morning or early evening.
Each class starts with a sheet of vocabulary words about a certain topic. A recent Arabic class, for example, offered driving words including intersection and roundabout. Missing were the curse words that most Israelis already know in Arabic.
The “moderator” S., who asked not to use his name because he works for other NGO’s, is a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem, and has a BA and an MA from US universities. He says he enjoys helping students achieve more fluency in Arabic.
“To be honest, it’s exciting,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve always been fond of languages and once you learn the language you learn the culture. I am lucky to have a job to be able to facilitate learning about language and culture.”
In Israel, while all Jewish students are supposed to study at least one year of Arabic, most do not learn much more than the alphabet. Some Israelis also see Arabic as the “language of the enemy” and prefer not to study it. While the Arabic group at Talk Café is usually small, it brings together people who would not usually meet, says founder Beigel.
“We’ve had American Muslims who know Arabic from the Qur’an but don’t speak it, coming to the class with a full hijab (a scarf covering their hair),” Moshe Beigel said. “And we had someone who worked in Israeli intelligence, and someone else who is a settler (lives in the West Bank). They all sat down, had a plate of soup, and spoke Arabic together.
In the Spanish group, one woman is brushing up her Spanish for a job interview. In the German class, one woman is on her way to visit her daughter who lives in Berlin, and wants to be able to speak to her grandchildren.
It is, however, Hebrew, that has the most demand, with at least seven classes a week – three in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank community of Efrat, heavily populated by English speakers. Many of the students are immigrants to Israel from North America, and while the Israeli government will fund and pay for an “ulpan” or intensive Hebrew language course, many student say they have trouble speaking, even if they understand Hebrew well.
“Talk Cafe is not intimidating and that is the key for me,” Renee Atlas-Cohen, a lawyer and tour guide who moved to Israel from Chicago 14 years ago told The Media Line. “No one calls on you, subjects are fluid and therefore usually interesting. For a few hours after Talk Café I feel more confident speaking Hebrew and that is huge for me.”
The teachers, who are called moderators, say their biggest challenge is how to involve students with different language levels. Talk Café is not for beginners, and not for someone already fluent, but there is a large gap between someone who can speak a few sentences in Hebrew, and someone who speaks well, and just needs a little confidence.
“I teach Hebrew in other places as well and most places they teach grammar but students don’t get a chance to talk,” Talia Huss, a graduate student who teaches both Hebrew and Spanish at Talk Café told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to keep conversation at a level that is not too easy, but that involves everyone in the conversation.”
Beigel says that Talk Café was born of his own experience.
“I moved to Israel from England 35 years ago,” he said. “In English I sounded quite intelligent, but in Hebrew I sounded like a fool. The idea of Talk Café is that people can stop sounding like fools.”