Howard County Times
Howard County

Columbia Association's language cafe offers international treats

Wilde Lake resident J.T. Powell has an interesting, perhaps unusual, hobby.

He doesn't collect stamps or build model airplanes. Instead, he teaches himself languages.


"I would highly recommend it," Powell said holding a tattered Italian dictionary at the Columbia Association's World Languages Cafe held at Wegmans last month.

"It's a wonderful hobby and super fun. As long as you don't take yourself too seriously."


Whether you're like Powell, who said he's taught himself bits and pieces of seven languages, or a fluent speaker of one language, there is a place for you at the World Languages Cafe, a monthly event hosted by Wegmans in Columbia as part of CA's multicultural programming.

The two-hour program, which held its first ever gathering on March, is free and offers the chance to speak a language through conversing with fellow speakers. The full list of languages, which can vary from month to month, has previously included Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Farsi (Persian), French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese.

Laura Smit, the manager of CA's International Exchange and Multicultural Programs, said the program originally was scheduled through June, but because more than 100 people turned out at the first meeting, it has been extended through August. The upcoming scheduled dates are June 26, July 24 and Aug. 28.

Each language is assigned a table in Wegmans' second floor market cafe, where a native speaker moderates the conversation between the participants, which vary in age and proficiency.

"We have native speakers representing a number of different languages who will converse with anyone who wants to stop by," said Valerie Montague, Chair of CA's International and Multicultural Advisory committee.

"They get a chance to practice a language they are rusty on, or haven't spoken in awhile. They may be planning a visit to another country, maybe they took the language back in high school and they haven't had an opportunity to speak it. This gives them that opportunity."

Montague, who volunteers as the cafe's host, said the program appeals to Columbia's founding principles of inclusion and diversity.

"This is a multicultural town, and we want to offer this multicultural opportunity," she said.


Powell, who attended the first three sessions, agrees.

"It's wonderful that they have this," he said at the May session. "Diversity is something we should celebrate in Columbia, and this does that."

Powell's partner at the Italian table last month, Wanda Prather, said the program is "a great way to meet people you otherwise wouldn't run into."

"It doesn't matter if you are young, old, in school, out of school, a fluent speaker. ... It brings people together from all over Columbia. I wish there were more events like this."

International inspiration

Where do you get an idea for something like this?


Smit said she heard about it a couple of years ago from her French teacher, who taught her the language using the same conversational technique used at the cafe.

"The whole idea is to practice speaking," Smit said. "For me, it's a just a way to promote the love of languages."

Smit said the program is a way for the greater Columbia community to promote its multicultural complexion.

"Because of our location and highly educated population, there are a lot of well-traveled people who speak multiple languages," Smit said. "This area has a lot of interesting people."

Among those interesting people is Daryl Tewell, who decided to learn Russian after he heard his co-workers at Raytheon Solipsys, located in Fulton, speaking it at work.

"It's one of my only ways to practice Russian," said Tewell. "I don't have a chance to speak it with my friends, my family doesn't speak it and it's hard to keep up with my co-workers. ... It'd be really nice to keep (the cafe) going."


Although attendance at the two most recent sessions hasn't matched the first one, Smit said she isn't concerned.

"It's going to fluctuate from month to month," she said. "As people get to know about it, the more they will spread the word."

And in all sorts of languages.

The next World Languages Cafe will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 26 at Wegmans Columbia located at 8855 McGaw Road in Columbia.