Most people know that although Switzerland is so small, it has several national languages: German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansh. Contrary to popular opinion, not every Swiss speaks more than one of these, but many do and most people have at least a smattering of a second language so you can’t live in Switzerland without hearing and seeing other languages. Practically anything you buy will be in a multilingual packaging, since products are required by law to carry information in the national languages. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many Swiss are interested in learning foreign languages and motivation is high even in small towns and villages.
Another pleasant feature of living in Switzerland is its café culture. Every place has at least one café or tearoom, offering a range of teas, coffees, and other beverages, as well as scrumptious cakes and pastries.
A few years ago an enterprising group in the little town of Buchs in the Rhine Valley, on the border with Liechtenstein and Austria, started a not-for-profit venture to encourage people to get together over a cup of coffee or tea in a small, unpretentious café and practise speaking another language. It is known simply as Sprachencafé.
As it happens, although Buchs is a small town, the area is home to several multinational companies employing a wide range of nationalities, and even has an accredited International School. Consequently, there are enough people available who are willing to support this enterprise by voluntarily leading groups in their native language as well as participating in foreign tongues. In effect, it’s like having free conversation lessons. The person who leads each group isn’t paid, but does get a free drink.
The set-up is simple. Each table in the café has its designated language, so you walk in, choose your language, take a seat, and join in the conversation. You meet people you have never seen before as well as old friends, everyone is on first-name terms, and there is no apparent age gap, with young, middle-aged and elderly all chattering away together. You can move from one table to another and practise several different lingos in the course of the evening.
Each table has a “moderator”, usually a native speaker, who subtly throws in topics for discussion when conversation flags or suggests games using the language, and who occasionally will correct linguistic errors (but not enough to embarrass the speakers or to turn the conversation into a language class). Every Tuesday, these enthusiastic polyglots take over the café for a couple of hours.
In its early days, there was a table for each language every time but this was found to have drawbacks, so now the languages are rotated, which suits most of the participants. This week, you can go and practise German with Manfred, French with Walter, Spanish with Giovanna, or Russian with Maxim. Next time, it will be English with Paul, Italian with Cristina, Rumantsch with Valentin and Greek with Panos. The languages offered depend on supply and demand: on who is available to lead, as well as on which languages are requested. In the past, there have also been groups practising Hebrew, Japanese or the local Swiss German dialect.
The amazing thing to me about this brainchild is not its popularity, but the improbable fact that it is not designed to make a profit. Nobody’s bank account is growing as a result of its success. The wealth is in the experience itself, the profit lies in the opportunity to meet people, to develop and intensify friendships, to improve linguistic and social skills, pass on information, and help one another. The founding group happens to be Christian, but there is no open evangelising going on here: just people loving their neighbours in a practical way and making a little headway towards international understanding.