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Language enthusiasts come together at Berkeley cafe

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Tristen Missett (left), Margaux Thierry (center) and Sohee Kim-Souron practice their French during Cafe Blue Door’s Language Cafe, a regular Tuesday night event. Participants can offer impromptu lessons, though languages offered vary weekly based on participants’ knowledge.


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FEBRUARY 23, 2014

In a Berkeley cafe, bustling on a Tuesday night, two men lingered over a word: bonito. Bonito means baby, one of them suggested. The other one hesitated — not quite. Bonito is beautiful, he explained. Baby is bebé. And if one wants to admire one of these miniature humans: bonito bebé, beautiful baby.

The two strangers were busy with an impromptu Spanish lesson. Hiram Francisco Bajandas, from Spain, grew up on the language, while Ibrahim Abu Alaynayn, an Egyptian native, was just taking his first steps.

“I’m not a teacher,” Bajandas said. “But I can teach.”

Their lesson lacked any official marker other than a sign reading “Spanish,” one of several labels perched on different tables, marking spheres of conversations in Korean, English, Italian and French. On the night of Feb. 11, Bajandas and Alaynayn were participating in the Language Cafe, a language exchange that meets every Tuesday evening at Cafe Blue Door on Bancroft Way. Begun in September, the event unites a medley of visiting scholars, UC Berkeley students, immigrants and language enthusiasts in a tucked-away hub of culture and conversation.

Founder Satu Schumacher came from Finland to Berkeley in January 2013 with her husband, a visiting scholar at the International Computer Science Institute. She applied for employment authorization but was denied.

“I spent the first months just enjoying the weather and meeting new people,” Schumacher said. “(But then) I felt like I need something to do, something meaningful to do.”

During a trip back to Finland, she found inspiration in a similar event called Cafe Lingua. She decided to bring the concept back to Berkeley and visited several before deciding on Cafe Blue Door, whose owner and staff, she said, have been welcoming.

“I love learning language,” said the cafe’s owner, Monjid Aldiyyat, about the Language Cafe. “It’s a good idea. I support it big-time.”

Aldiyyat said he hopes the event grows and has helped by advertising with signs and reserving tables for the event.

Initially, Schumacher started with a few friends and recruited more people with fliers and Facebook. Now their corner of the cafe draws more than 20 participants, a mix of internationals and U.S. natives.

French and English are unofficial fixtures, Schumacher said, but otherwise the languages spoken depend on who comes.

“We’re looking for anybody,” said Riccardo La Spina, who said he stumbled into the Language Cafe one day when he came in to use the Internet. “Any language base whatsoever.”

La Spina is a native English speaker and also speaks varying levels of Italian, German, Romanian, French, Czech, Hungarian, Portuguese and Spanish. Many regular attendees also speak multiple languages — on the same Tuesday, a Spanish and a Korean speaker sat at the center of the French table.

Excuse our slow English, the two said, their speech quickening as it shifted into French accented with laughter. Margaux Thierry, visiting from Paris, called the people who speak six or seven languages “incredible.” She gestured to Tristan Missett, a software engineer who writes poetry in his spare time. Missett speaks German, French, English, Italian and Portuguese, Thierry said, nudging him to ask if she had forgotten any.

“If two or three people start coming consistently, they will rely on each other to keep coming and keep that language going,” said longtime participant Isobel Harvey. “It’s a lot about forming relationships.”

Sohee Kim-Souron said she normally teaches Korean to Jonas Tjader, a Swedish visiting scholar at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, although that particular day she had decided to sit at the French table, while he picked up a lesson with a UC Berkeley sophomore.

“C’est la vie,” she said jokingly.

Visitors come and go, so finding a steady teacher can be difficult. Schumacher returned to Finland last month, leaving Harvey to manage the Facebook page. On Schumacher’s last day at the Language Cafe, attendees surprised her with a farewell party, complete with a walnut cake and a jelly roll.

“I’m very happy with all the great memories we got in California,” Schumacher said. “Who knows if we one day come back?”

Corrections: A previous version of this article misspelled Hiram Francisco Bajandas' name.
Melissa Wen covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.

FEBRUARY 24, 2014

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