Language-sharing groups showcase multilingual Canada

Toronto Babel, an informal language exchange program running for the past three years, gives the city's international community a chance to speak in new and native tongues alike.
Laura Marthe and Denis Dione practice French and Spanish at a language exchange at the Rivoli Restaurant in Toronto. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Not even the relentless throb of a hip-hop beat can drown out the sounds of a typical Tuesday night upstairs at Toronto's Rivoli nightclub.

The top floor of the bustling bar echoes each week with the staccato clack of German consonants, the melodic lilt of Japanese vowels and persistent peals of laughter as more than a hundred aspiring language students struggle to master their new tongues.

The students — from all walks of life and ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s — are members of Toronto Babel, an informal language exchange program that has been giving the city's international community a chance to speak in new and native tongues alike for the past three years.

The din of different languages is loudest in Toronto, where 1.8 million people reported speaking an immigrant language at home, according to fresh 2011 census numbers released Wednesday. Vancouver ranked a distant second with 711,515 people reporting an at-home preference for a language other than English or French, Statistics Canada reported.

Cantonese and Punjabi ranked highest on the list of languages in Toronto, along with other Chinese languages, Urdu, Tamil and Tagalog, which originates in the Philippines.

Opportunity to practise

For Kevin Harrington, the laid-back pub setting allows him to instruct a younger generation in the six languages he's acquired over his 77 years. Regulars know him as a first point of contact for any newcomers wishing to learn Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Portuguese or Japanese.

"Mostly, I'm helping give conversational exercises for those who want to learn it," Harrington says. "But secondly, I'm also practising any number of languages, according to who's at the table or who's in the crowd."

At the front of the room, two organizers work quietly to turn an ordinary night on the town into a productive language exchange. They note who has arrived, the languages they speak and the ones they hope to learn. The organizers then spend much of their evening directing traffic to make sure that eager students are paired off with the appropriate teachers.

Honing conversational skills

When Lee Pen first walked into Babel a few months ago, it took the organizers about 30 seconds to pair him off with a Spanish speaker to help him hone his conversational skills.

Kazim Rizei, left, Soonjin Choi, right, William Garcia, second left and Katie Yu practice English and Korean at a language exchange at the Rivoli Restaurant in Toronto on October 11. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

The 40-year-old astronomer has reciprocated in kind by helping students of his two primary languages, German and Mandarin.

Pen says he views his visits to Babel as the perfect way to supplement his Spanish classes, which focus heavily on classroom formalities while neglecting the more practical side of learning a language.

"In class you learn more on paper — the theory, grammar and vocabulary — but you're not going to have a chance to say anything, really."

The laid-back bar setting allows people to practice their fledgling skills in a more natural environment and make friends in the process, Pen says.

The social aspect has also been a key draw for Eduardo Costa, a founding member who recently assumed co-leadership of the group. Costa, 39, was recruited to the group in its earliest days after advertising online to find an English conversation partner.

Filling a void

The initial group of a dozen people quickly began to grow, and Costa found the people he met there began to fill the void left by the friends and relatives he left behind in his home country of Brazil.

"When you immigrate, you lose your family, your friends are still there," he says. "This group became my first new family in Canada."

Today, Costa runs the group alongside Anna Shalaginova, a native Russian speaker who has refined her French skills over weekly drinks with Babel members.

She's watched the group more than double in size over the past year and a half, a phenomenon she chalks up to Canada's multicultural makeup.

Smaller Babel groups have sprung up in Ottawa and Kitchener, Ont., she said, adding the country's ethnic and linguistic diversity makes it an ideal home for similar language exchanges from coast to coast.

"Some people come to Canada for a few months, some people end up staying, and there's people who have lived here for their entire lives," she says. "They all like it."