This Australian pub has become a meeting place to learn a new language

Language exchanges are turning pubs like PJ O'Reilly's in Canberra into a place for patrons to learn at least a dozen different languages.

Jannine Du says the Language Exchange has helped improve her English skills.

Jannine Du says the language exchange has helped improve her English skills. Source: SBS News

It’s a Tuesday night at PJ O'Reilly's in Canberra and patrons have turned the inner-city watering hole into a melting pot of multilingualism.

A string of flags hangs from the ceiling of this traditional pub where an eclectic crowd of language lovers have gathered for their weekly meet up.

The so-called 'language exchange' is part of an international trend that sees people join together to speak up to a dozen different languages and learn from each other.

The language exchange give participants a chance to learn different languages from others.
Source: SBS News

The casual setting harnesses conversation and a schooner or two helps break down any cultural or language barriers.

Alex Chung came to Canberra from Hong Kong almost a year ago to study international relations.

He tells SBS News these nights are a chance to speak his native Cantonese with others and improve his English.

“Like recently, we were talking about the protests in Hong Kong, lots of people they have different ideas and that’s really fascinating and so inspiring to me,” he says. 

“Some of my friends think they will face a bit of racism, or like, stereotype [in Australia], but from my personal experience not at all.”

Alex Chung is studying in Australia.
Source: SBS News

Language exchanges are being held in cities around the world.

Participants organise meetups over the internet then come together to improve their skills. 

People at the Canberra event wear stickers of flags to demonstrate the languages they speak and also want to learn.

Languages spoken in any given week include English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, German, Arabic, Persian, Indonesian, Finnish and more.

Meet the people learning languages over a schooner

Some people want to practice foreign languages in a more casual setting, others are international visitors wanting to improve their English skills. 

Mr Chung said the informality of the meetups is at the heart of the experience.

“In Hong Kong … we don’t really speak English in our everyday lives,” he says. 

“So going to a language exchange really helped me when I am chatting, sharing with other people.”

“I feel like I must need to know some Australian slang when I’m chatting with the locals.” 

Alex Chung, from Hong Kong, speaks with Iranian Alex Askari.
Source: SBS News

Alex Askari has three flag stickers on his shirt, one from his native Iran, as well as Germany and China.

He’s been in Canberra a couple of years but it’s his first night at the language exchange.

“I know it is going to be useful so I just came here to grab different sentences from different languages,” he says.

“I’m trying to do it simply, just asking 'what is this sentence?' and writing them down in my phone, maybe in the future, I might need them.”

Alex Askari speaks to others at the language exchange.
Source: SBS News

According to the 2016 Census, 21 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home or have learned a second language for work.

The most common languages spoken across the nation include Mandarin (2.5 per cent), Arabic (1.4 per cent), Cantonese (1.2 per cent), Vietnamese (1.2 per cent) and Italian (2.1 per cent).

Language exchange host Grant Robertson said he sees expats from around the world at the Canberra event, sometimes still settling into their first weeks of arriving in the country.

“If you want to learn a second language it is a great place to meet either native speakers and other people learning the same language as you,” he says. 

“It’s also really good if English is your second language and you’re new to Australia … and you just want to come here and improve your English.”

The pub encourages people to meet to learn and practice different languages.
Source: SBS News

Chinese national Jannine Du, 26, came to Canberra to further her university studies.

“I want to teach someone Chinese and also want to learn some other languages,” she says. 

“I found lots of people want to learn Chinese, so it’s a good way to communicate – not just language but culture too.”

She said some people she has met speak up to “four or five” languages, but she is taking it one at a time.

“After I finish my English learning I start trying to do French, though I’m terrible at it,” she says. 

“[But] lots of people say my English is getting better and better since I came here.” 

Michael Byrne, 30, is a Canberra native who is studying Mandarin alongside a master of diplomacy.

“Coming somewhere like this and meeting friends from China and Taiwan or Hong Kong or Singapore, it’s been really quite an enriching experience,” he says. 

“When you have real-world conversations you start to pick up on different ways of speaking you wouldn’t necessarily pick up in the textbooks."

Michael Byrne is studying Mandarin.
Source: SBS News

He’s also taken the chance to teach others.

“I have been quite proactive in teaching some of my Chinese friends, for instance, some of the Australian slang,” he says.

“But I haven’t been too ambitious learning a lot of Mandarin slang.”

Aedan Jones has been a bar manager at PJ O'Reilly's for more than four years.

He said the weekly meetups have helped increase the diversity of the venue.

"I think it just brings people of all walks of life into PJ's, which we love," he says.  

"It's great, even from behind the bar, from a serving perspective, speaking to some of these people and their experiences from their own countries."

Published 24 December 2019 at 1:21pm
By Tom Stayner