We need each other: Reflections on the 5th birthday of Language Partners BC

2017 Community Languages FestivalCommunity Languages Festival planning team, from way back in September 2017

Why and how we learn languages

People in British Columbia cite so many different reasons to learn languages. Among us are heritage language learners – people revitalizing Indigenous languages of this land or reclaiming languages of ancestors and family members. We are passionate linguaphiles, lovers of words. We are newcomers improving our English while handling a hundred challenges. We are thoughtful people, learning languages for romantic partners, families, and communities we care about.

Some people think: I’ll learn a language, and then I’ll have someone to speak it with. In my experience, it goes the other way. I remember studying Arabic for months in Morocco and barely exchanging pleasantries. Only when I met a woman at the bathhouse, whose story I desperately wanted to understand, who was funny and kind, did I actually begin learning the spoken Arabic of Morocco, Darija.

You may have studied languages, on your own or in a classroom. At its best, studying languages can be fun, satisfying, delightful. But how well do books, programs, and teachers connect you to speakers of the language? If you sit regularly with someone who speaks the language, then right away many things happen. You become aware of what you need and want, including how to ask about the individual in front of you. You begin to ask for specific help. You discover how to make yourself understood. A language partner is both a purpose and a means to learn. They are the why and the how.

Language Partners BC provides the structure, in person and now online

2016 Ajyal Language Exchange
English-Arabic language exchange partners in one of our first programs in 2016

Some people can set up language exchange meetings on their own, but many need the support of a structure. Language Partners BC was first able to create these structures because some women in Vancouver said, “Let’s try it.” A woman at an Islamic centre and then a woman at a neighbourhood house said, “I have some resources of space and energy to contribute. Let’s give it a go.” From this willingness, over 35 multi-week programs have sprung to life. In each program, partners help each other with the support of the group and volunteer facilitators.

Moving online for the pandemic has gone pretty smoothly. Participants say they like the accessibility of doing language exchange from home. Plus, now anyone in British Columbia with an internet connection can join. In-person meetings will always have a special something – I will never forget the surprise birthday party one group threw me, on a predictably depressing, rainy November night – and I hope we will gather again. In the meantime, we can get really good at this online group work.

Future directions – as a cooperative!

Speaking of getting better: We know that we can’t match everyone with a partner every season. We would love to develop ways to serve everyone that signs up. That is an area for improvement. Also, our facilitation approach is in constant iteration. We draw from language learning methodologies, hospitality, and community organizing, and will continue to adapt. Finally, our organization itself is up for redesign. We have successfully managed as a small, all volunteer-run group by keeping expectations clear and manageable, with no one spending more than an average of four hours per week. I suspect we can empower more people to do more interesting and enlivening work as a cooperative association.

We didn’t realize how aligned we are with cooperatives until we got a workshop on how they work. Autonomy. Democratic participation. Mutual aid. It’s us! We – the founding committee members, the participants, the facilitators, past and present volunteers – need language help and community connections. We are not doing this for some group over there. We are meeting our own needs, together. The decision to incorporate as a cooperative makes sense.

We all need help

Summer 2020 Program
One of our first all-online programs in Summer 2020; I facilitated and participated in a Kurdish-English exchange with my partner Bengi

I dislike the idea that immigrants and refugees are especially in need of help. I’m a white woman with a Canadian birth certificate and a native English speaker accent, and I struggle with anxiety and feelings of disconnection. Showing up among other people to acknowledge my challenges – as well as joys – takes away that alienation. As anyone with experience knows, speaking a new language is an act of vulnerability. It’s not purely academic or intellectual. It’s emotional and related to identity. To speak new languages, we all need help. We need each other.