It is this ethos that has been the foundation of Toronto Babel, a weekly language exchange meet-up which was started in January of 2010. Created by Beth MacLeod, a University of Toronto PhD candidate in linguistics, the meet-up attracts over 100 people each week. Eager participants from diverse backgrounds congregate on the second floor of the Rivoli bar on Queen St. West to learn and practice, but perhaps more importantly, to participate in a social gathering.
Although MacLeod studies linguistics, the impetus to create the language meet-up was not inspired by her own particular research goals. Rather, the idea for the formation of the group came from MacLeod’s belief that doing an informal language exchange would be a fun and engaging enterprise, and would offer people an alternative to the classroom approach to language acquisition. “The meet-up gives people a chance to have a real-world experience practicing a language. In a classroom setting it’s easy to get a false sense of security about your ability to speak and communicate,” says MacLeod. While classroom learning can provide a base and a set of rules for a language, the conversational style of learning develops a level of linguistic intuition, which is central to communication. That is why this style of language learning can produce such tangible results, she explains.
Beyond the benefits for learning a new language, MacLeod is emphatic about the meet-up being an informal social space for people to come in and have conversations with one another. Though there are a lot of ‘regulars.’ who live in Toronto permanently, MacLeod sees around 40 new people every week. Because of the nature of the meet-up, she explains, there is always turnover. In addition to the regulars, there are many people who have come to Toronto for a month or two to learn English, and have found out about the meet-up online. For those people, the meet-up offers a social environment where they have the opportunity to not only practice their English, but where they can also make local friends.
So how does it work? The meet-up is open to anyone and everyone, regardless of background and fluency in any language. MacLeod wanted her meet-up to feel more like a night out than a formal conversation group with designated topics. She explains that people arrive and introduce themselves (she’ll be wearing a nametag) and she introduces them to regulars, or people who are speaking their language of interest. The rest is up to the group, which will grow organically. The informal nature of the meet-up creates a comfortable space for people to sit in on natural conversation and participate when they feel ready.
And what is the most common language spoken? Unsurprisingly, English is the most popularly sought after to learn, especially among newcomers. However, MacLeod is reluctant to lump all the English-language enthusiasts into one group. “They are a hugely diverse group from different backgrounds. And people come from all over the world, so there are many, many languages being spoken,” she says. While the other two most popular languages are French and Spanish, MacLeod says that this is by no means the limitation. Almost every week there are speakers of Korean, German, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, Armenian, Arabic, Hindi, (to name a few) and occasionally American Sign Language. The range of languages represents a truly multi-cultural mix of attendees and creates opportunities for sharing more than just linguistic notes.
Since its inception Toronto Babel has been a wildly successful endeavour, not only for its benefits to budding linguists, but also for its positive social dimensions. Naturally, most people are interested in learning a language so that they can communicate with native speakers across different cultures. This informal social environment gives people the opportunity to do just that, and in the process, participate in an exciting and fundamentally human experience.
Toronto Babel meets every Tuesday at 7:30PM on the second floor of the Rivoli at 334 Queen St. West. To learn more or to become a member, visit www.meetup.com/TorontoBabel. Everyone is welcome!