June 26, 2019 | 72° F

'Multilingual Conversation Café' introduces students to new languages

Photo by Samantha Casamir |

Members of the Rutgers and New Brunswick communities can learn or practice their language skills with the Multilingual Conversation Cafés held on-campus.

A joint venture by the University and the New Brunswick community seeks to break language barriers through the simple act of having a conversation.

On Tuesday night, The Conversation Tree and Rutgers University Global Citizens hosted the “Multilingual Conversation Café.” The event brought Rutgers students and faculty together alongside New Brunswick residents in an environment where participants could practice verbal interactions in nine different languages.

The Conversation Tree was organized in 2012 by the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service. The program currently hosts various conversation cafés in English, Spanish and Mandarin every week for members of the Rutgers and New Brunswick community.

“We really believe in the philosophy of honoring and respecting multilingualism,” said Taylor Rotolo, program director of The Conversation Tree and a coadjunct in the Douglass Residential College. “Language is an incredible thing to celebrate.”

This atmosphere of informal conversations differs from the traditional classroom setting and way of learning, said Mary Curran, associate dean for local-global partnerships in the Graduate School of Education.

“The idea is to provide exposure to the language,” she said. “The most powerful part of these simple conversations is the relationships that we are building between Rutgers students and community members and between staff and community members.”

Each table at the event was assigned a respective target language that participants wanted to improve. Trained facilitators, both students and community members, stimulated discussions among them.

“A lot of people want to learn Chinese or their heritage language, but they don’t have a place to learn it,” said Yang-Chieh Lee, a student in the Graduate School of Education and a Mandarin facilitator. “I think this is a really nice environment for people to connect with each other and to be able to practice the language that they want to learn.”

Jorge Arabia, a resident of East Brunswick and a Spanish facilitator, considers the seemingly trivial topics discussed in the cafés important tools that help expand the participants’ abilities of communication.

“Understanding the essentials of other languages permits you to easily adapt to new communities,” he said. “From conversations about your family, to talking to the guy at the grocery store or even to making a doctor’s appointment.”

Sachiko Tanaka, a native of Japan, improved her conversational English with the help of Rutgers students at the conversation cafés and wants to return the favor.

“I’m now the Japanese facilitator,” Tanaka said. “The students helped me, now I want to give back and make more friends.”

Students valued the collaborative effort with the New Brunswick community and recognized the professional and academic advantages of knowing more than one language.

“Learning new languages opens your world perspective,” said Patricia Gea, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “You learn that a lot of culture is attached to the words that you say and that the way you frame sentences reflects the culture of a respective group of people.”

The often difficult nature of trying to communicate in a foreign language, grants participants the ability to relate to people struggling to learn English, said Ashely DeVincentz, a graduate student in the Graduate School of Education.

“This environment helps you empathize with ESL Students,” DeVincentz said. “Experiencing what it feels like for a student that comes in to your classroom that doesn’t know English helps you put yourself in their shoes.”

Curran emphasized the need for students to be further exposed to the local community around them. Including community members in leadership roles at the cafés is helping bridge the gap, she said.

“Often, the way opportunities at Rutgers are positioned, students are not positioned to be learning from the community,” she said.

The University should take more steps to engage with the diverse and multiethnic community around campus, Rotolo said.

“New Brunswick is such as a global community and there so many people in this area from so many different places,” she said. “I think that there is a lot that we can learn from the community members and from the people who live here.”


Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez

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