Learning a new language at SPEAK

At SPEAK you can learn a new language in a way that’s entertaining and engaging. Depending on where you are, you can learn Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, and French. Or perhaps English, Flemish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, or any other language that’s on offer. But you won’t be learning a new language sitting at a desk in a stuffy classroom, with a teacher writing endless verb conjugations or vocabulary lists on a blackboard. Instead, you could end up in a variety of locations, including parks and cafes. And the method of instruction will include games, picnics, and lots of conversation.


SPEAK easy-going feeling

Each language group is run by two instructors who are referred to as “buddies.” And they are really just that: your buddies. They’re not teachers who are there to drill you or judge you. As for the students, referred to as “participants,” they don’t only learn from the buddies. They also learn from each other, and in doing so they frequently become friends. In fact, SPEAK sessions often serve as social outlets because you can interact with everyone in a relaxed and enjoyable manner. But while you’re laughing and joking, you’re also learning a new language.

We asked some participants and buddies to tell us what they thought about SPEAK’s way of helping others learning a new language.

Christine Eamer is a Canadian who works at her country’s embassy in Berlin as a migration program assistant. She said “I enjoy the relaxed and flexible style that comes with SPEAK sessions”. Christine has studied Arabic with SPEAK there, and helped others learn German as well. “Some elements that I have found enjoyable are the use of music, casual conversation, games, and sharing of personal experiences. The atmosphere in the sessions is very friendly and accepting, which ensures that everyone is comfortable sharing and practicing.”  

One interesting strategy used in her Arabic language group was to film the participants as they performed a skit they’d written. “Watching it back really gave me a sense that I knew more than I thought, since I started really at zero.”

“I think a peculiarity of SPEAK is the methodology and the environment you’re surrounded by”. Maria Laura Picciolo studied Spanish while helping others learn Italian at SPEAK in Madrid. “It’s a very dynamic way of learning a new language―through games, competitions, drinks, and quizzes! It’s very cool because you are forced to practice the language in order to discover and get to know new people.”


SPEAK picnic in Lisbon - learning a new language shouldn't be boring
SPEAK picnic in Lisbon

SPEAK activities

Two favourite activities in SPEAK sessions are conversing and playing games.

Lots of games! Conversations about who we are, what we like to do, the day-to-day, etc,” said Pierre Masci. Pierre is a Frenchman who studied Portuguese and helped others learn French and English at SPEAK in Lisbon. “Basically, learning a new language by becoming friends, and going out to drink and have a chat together as a group.”

“I learned a lot of fun board games that were possible to use for helping others learn languages, such as Pictionary or ‘exquisite cadaver,’ for example,” said Anna Khairullina. She’s a Russian based in Turin where she has studied English and helped others learn Russian and Portuguese at SPEAK.

Ana Carvalho is from Lisbon, and she studied French and helped others learn Portuguese at SPEAK there. “In the conversational language groups, we did many games to make people speak, to unlock the conversations,” she said. “In the basic language groups, it’s more difficult to make people really have a conversation in another language, but still possible. It’s better than having infinite hours of grammar in a language school.”


Learning a new language while sharing food

Another favourite part of SPEAK sessions is food. Not just talking about it, but eating it.

Lynne Smith said that “Personally, I thought the cooking evenings and games nights were great, with all the tasting of international cuisine,”. Lynne is from Scotland and has helped others learn English at SPEAK in Leiria, where she’s also taken Portuguese.

Isa Parra is a Chilean who helps others learn Spanish at SPEAK in Berlin, and is a participant in German and English language groups there. She said that in her session, “we tried the picnic mode, and it generated beautiful moments to share in summer.”

Roberto Primavera studies Russian at SPEAK in Turin. He told us: “One time we met to cook some traditional Russian dishes, so we learned some food terms.”

Marcia Guerreiro is originally from Brazil, but for 18 years has been living in Lisbon. She is a buddy of basic Portuguese at SPEAK. Marcia recounted how she had asked the participants in her language group to bring in recipes of dishes from their native countries. Later, on the last day of the language group, all the participants actually brought in dishes from their native countries. “It was so nice, no one wanted to go home,” she said.

SPEAK isn’t only about eating and socializing, however. There is also a pedagogical method at work.


Food sharing during sessions, learning a new language shouldn't be boring
Food sharing at SPEAK

The method to learn a new language

As mentioned above, the language groups at SPEAK focus on building the participants’ vocabulary as a foundation for their speaking skills. Gabriel Amarista Rodrigues is originally from Venezuela. He helped others learn Spanish and studied Portuguese and English at SPEAK Coimbra. He outlined his view of the ideal SPEAK approach to each level. “For basic language groups, the best is to get people talking in the session and correct them. Help them learn how to say what they want to say, and give them the survival skills they need. Most of all, it is important for them to use the words they have been learning throughout the sessions,” he said.

Conversational sessions are more open to creativity,” he continued. “You just need for them to talk to each other and add in some complexity to the way they communicate. More vocabulary, different ways to say the same thing, the meaning of idioms, discussions, storytelling. Anything that gets the participants to speak to each other and allows them to use the knowledge they have been acquiring.”


Learning a new language by themes

The other major SPEAK approach is the use of themes. Isabel Sofia dos Reis-Flood has helped others learn Portuguese and French at SPEAK in her native Lisbon. Isabel said that she liked SPEAK’s practice of “creating cultural events based on themes to be given in sessions.” Indeed, SPEAK encourages buddies to structure their sessions around themes that are particularly relevant and useful. Some examples are “greetings and presentations,” “the family,” “countries and nationalities,” “festivals and traditions,” “clothing and shopping,” and “days of the week and months of the year,” among others.

For instance, during one of Marcia’s Portuguese session, she helped others learn the words for various family members by presenting photos of her own family. The other buddy conducting the session then showed a photo of the British royal family. Next, the buddies asked the participants if they had any family photos on hand. Sure enough, several participants held up phones with photos of family members and explained who they were. This was a way to get the participants to use their newly learned vocabulary. Finally, the buddies asked the participants for the words for family members in their own languages.  Answers emerged from the group in Chinese, Japanese, English, Italian, Romanian, and German.

One conversational English session took a novel approach to the “days of the week and months of the year” theme. Instead of just helping others learn the names of days and months, the buddies spent that session on the signs of the Zodiac! The participants had been asked to write a horoscope for a particular astrological sign, and each one was then read out loud in the session. These horoscopes were written in decent English, but the buddies offered several corrections in grammar and usage.  

Personalized themes

The buddies at SPEAK are also allowed to introduce themes of their own. During another session of that English language group, the participants broke up into pairs to prepare brief skits depicting business transactions. One pair did a skit on making a hotel reservation. Another about renting a car over the phone. The third about a customer trying to exchange a gift at a department store. All the pairs quickly prepared their skits and then performed them in front of the group. There was plenty of laughter at some of the impromptu twists and turns in these mini-dramas. But the exercise got the participants speaking in extended dialogues.


Benefits of SPEAK language groups

Overall, SPEAK language groups are beneficial in two ways. First, they provide language instruction that’s enjoyable, but also effective. Second, they help you to overcome the social isolation that often comes with moving to another country. You’ll get to forge friendships with locals and people from around the world.

SPEAK isn’t only about learning a new language, however. It’s also about enriching your experience of the city and country you’re now in. Whether you’re staying for a few months or are there to start a new life.


Author: Joanne E. Gerber

Joanne has been specializing has an editor and copy editor in international economic and social development for over a decade. She is fluent in French and proficient in Spanish.

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