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World Languages Cafe in Columbia helps improve fluency in other tongues

At a crowded table in the cafe room at the Wegman's in Columbia, Ekaterina Pyankova greets people with the Russian word for hello: "privet."

A few feet away, Nadja Todt offers a German greeting: "Hallo."

And in the center of the room, Girija Duraiswami says "namaste," a Hindi word and gesture given for both greeting and bidding farewell. While uttering the word, she places her palms together before her chest and bends slightly forward.

" 'Namaste' means, 'My soul is saluting the soul in you,'" said Duraiswami, a Columbia resident who grew up in India. "All souls are one. The same soul exists in different people. All are one."

The three are among dozens of American and foreign-born residents who meet once a month in Columbia for the World Languages Cafe, a program sponsored by the nonprofit Columbia Association to give those learning languages a chance to improve fluency in an informal setting.

More than a dozen languages — including Farsi, German, Hindi, Hebrew and Russian — are offered at the gathering. Each language has its designated table, where conversations are led by a host who speaks the language fluently.

The group usually meets on the fourth Wednesday of each month. During a recent session, members spoke about how Christmas and New Year's Day are celebrated in their home countries.

Launched in March, the cafe draws about 75 participants, said Laura Smit, the Columbia Association's manager for international exchange and multicultural programs. She said she conjured up such a gathering after hearing about one at a cafe in Austria.

"When you walk in, we ask you, 'What language would you like to practice?' " said Smit, of Columbia, who speaks several languages, including French, Portuguese and Dutch.

"It could be a language that you learned as a child. It could be a language you're studying now that you will use when you travel," Smit said. "It's an opportunity to speak a language you know, converse with friendly people, increase your fluency and pick up phrases."

But Smit cautions schoolchildren: Languages are not taught at these sessions. Those who attend must be able to speak well enough to engage in conversation.

"They must know past and future tense," she said, "because it's really being able to string sentences together."

Pyankova, a Catonsville resident and table host who moved to the United States from Russia about three years ago, said the group facilitates conversation by sharing chocolates, or "I try to think about a topic to discuss or we play cultural games. In a previous session, there were teenagers who just started learning Russian. For them we played an Uno game."

Todt, of Bethesda, said the German table usually fields a sizable contingent, including Germans who married Americans, exchange students and former armed forces members who were stationed there. They often bring postcards and maps.

She said many want to learn slang along with practicing formal speech. "You say, 'This is how a younger person would say it, and this is the formal way,' " said Todt, who came from Germany about five years ago. "It's similar to someone saying, 'How are you?' and someone saying, 'What's up?' "

Laleh Alemzadeh, an Ellicott City resident from Iran, leads the Farsi table, greeting people with "Salaam."

Alemzadeh said the cafe allows students to move back and forth between English and Farsi "because I don't want them to get frustrated. We say the words in English, and then I Google the words with pictures."

The foreign-born residents gave mixed reviews about how their native tongues are welcomed in the United States.

"I've known some Americans who are interested in learning a different language," Todt said. "But other Americans [who hear her speak English] say, 'No, this is how you say it,' or they make fun of your accents. But even Americans have different accents."

Pyankova speaks fluent English but makes no bones about preferring Russian. English, she said, "is a selfish language. It's all, 'I, I, I, I, I. Give me, me, me, me. I need, I need, I need.' In Russian, the way you would structure the sentence would be that you would say the same thing, but you would not use 'I' so much."

Some who speak more than one language visit several tables. Patricia Fisher, a Columbia resident from Colombia, led the Spanish table but also speaks Portuguese and French and some Italian.

"What I need is a lot of practice, which is something I like about this. It gives me the opportunity to listen to speakers and try out some [languages] I studied. I go from table to table, like a little bird, taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there," she said.

Duraiswami, who has lived in the United States for 18 years, said the cafe gives her a chance to speak with American-born Indian students "who would like to know about their roots."

"They also evinced keen interest to increase their conversational skills in Hindi. I feel good when they come here," she said.

For information on the World Languages Cafe, go to columbiaassociation.com, email laura.smit@ColumbiaAssociation.org or call 410-715-3162.

j.burris@baltsun.com

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