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A language exchange for all

Editors’ note: Wim left the taalcafe in early 2018. Shortly after the event was renamed to Taalcafé Mundial.

Taalcafé Macharius is a great way to help yourself learn Dutch, or just make new friends when you first move to Ghent. TheSquare.Gent met up with Wim Vande Casteele, the mastermind behind the language cafe (pictured), to find out how it all works, and why he thinks it makes Ghent a better place to be for expats.

So what is the Taalcafé exactly?

Well basically it’s a social event. It consists of bi-weekly evening meet-ups, where people from different parts of the world come together to exchange languages, ideas, experiences etc.

What is the format of the event?

The evening is split up into 3 sessions, and we advise people to spend one of those sessions helping others, and the other two getting something out of it for themselves. We ask people to come along with an idea of the languages they want to offer and request, and to let us organise the practicalities.

The meet-ups take place on the 2nd Tuesday and last Wednesday of every month, and follow this schedule:

19.00  –  Taalcafé Macharius opens

19.15  –  Welcome and introduction

19.30  –  First session

20.30  –  Second session

21.30  –  Third session

23.00  –  Taalcafé Macharius closes

Where can people go to find out more info?

For day-to-day information, they can join our Facebook group.

How popular is the Taalcafé?

Well I would say very. In numbers, we get about 100 people each time, which is quite a crowd. Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve had between 1500 and 2000 unique visitors. The Facebook group has 3200 members, two thirds of which are active.

What made you set the Taalcafé up?

I arrived at the idea from two angles, two experiences. One was the English language tables I have been organising myself where I see that people, very different people, bond very strongly because they come for the same language. This has been my experience for the last 10 years. And the second angle is the fact that I was introduced to the expat communities in Ghent and I noticed immediately that expats complained about feeling left out, and more specifically about how hard it is to get through to Flemish people, and speak Dutch. So they complained about the fact that they couldn’t leave their own circle and integrate with other cultures. But the main complaint was that they felt excluded from the traditional, tight-knit Belgian family culture.

What are the challenges of running this event?

The challenge at the start was to get the philosophy of the exchange concept across. But this isn´t a problem anymore. Now the major challenge is to find native speakers of an increasing number of languages that you wouldn’t expect, like Lingala, Vietnamese or Afrikaans. On an average night, we cover 15 or so different languages.

What do you enjoy the most about running the Taalcafé?

It´s a combination of being in touch with people (mainly online) in the run-up to the Taalcafé, and then meeting them in person and seeing how they bond with other people on the night itself.

What’s the most troublesome language?

We have always struggled with one language or another, but at the moment, the most difficult language for us is actually Danish. If there are requests but not enough offers, we go looking for native speakers. On average we find them for 75% of languages.

Does your organisation run other events?

We have local mini Taalcafés, in the afternoons and in the evenings. And our Facebook group is the perfect place for people to set up their own tandems or make arrangements to meet each other beyond the Taalcafés. We also have partnerships with other, like-minded organisations in the city. We don’t run language classes – we’re not a language school. But we definitely see ourselves as a complementary activity for people learning languages.

It’s not all talk. The Taalcafé also features musical and other interludes where people can share other aspects of their cultures.

What do the attendees like about the event?

What people like most about the event is meeting new people, and getting better at their favourite languages in a very efficient way. They like the sense of community – they help people, those people help them – and because of this free exchange they feel a part of something.

Let’s ask them…

Here’s how some regular Taalcafé-goers describe the event:

“Taalcafe Macharius is a fantastic way for Belgians and expats to meet, exchange cultures and develop linguistic talents in a friendly and welcoming environment. Truly looking forward to the next meetup!

Chris Hanney, from Australia

“TCM is an amazing idea!! It provides opportunities not only to learn foreign languages but also to meet wonderful people.”

Afra Wei, from Taiwan

“Over the last 14 months or so, the TCM has become a pillar of Ghent for language exchange and socialisation. It is international, in that locals, overseas students, expatriates and even refugees feel welcome, mingle, enjoy themselves and benefit here. It is unique and irreplaceable.”

Andrew Kong, from Hong Kong

“Language learning might be a hobby, for better job prospects or a pathway to get to know other people and yourself. Taalcafe Macharius, this cozy small world gives these opportunities. It is difficult to measure how enriching the Taalcafe Macharius is since that people are benefited in different ways (Get to know languages, people, culture, boosts self-confidence etc. ). As an expat I also see this event as a catalyst of social integration.”

Kleber Pereira, from Brazil

“In TCM I not only rapidly improved my Dutch language skills, but also made real friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Nicoleta Nistor, from Romania

“Integration for us foreigners in such a language rich country as Belgium demands spaces like this. True language learning happens in such places.”

Gerardo Herrera Antiguo Cuscatlan, from El Salvador

Heather
Heather is a language and travel geek at heart, having gotten the bug for it while studying German and Italian in her home country, England. After managing hotel content for a start-up in Berlin, being an Erasmus student in Bologna and writing for Frommer's travel guides while in London, she moved to Gent in 2015 for a year. Still here, Gent must have been doing something right! She's now determined to help other newbie expats settle in and build a great life here in this beautiful city. If you'd like to get in touch, send an email to heather@thesquare.gent

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