Fridays at the Le Grand Café Centro are a popular activity. Ñito Salas
Chatting together to learn the lingo
Language exchange

Chatting together to learn the lingo

Foreign residents, digital nomads and locals in Malaga, eager to refine their English or Spanish, meet up in a city bar thanks to a restless soul from Argentina

Cristina Vallejo


Friday, 6 October 2023, 17:54


Just another Friday night in September yet, in a cafe beside the Guadalmedina river in the city centre, there is a sense of something different going on, a gathering of everything that cosmopolitan Malaga has to offer. You can hear people speaking English with many different accents, some very confident, others less so, often depending on where they come from. It is more difficult for the local Spanish than for those from Scandinavian countries.

You can also hear Spanish being spoken with accents from both sides of the Atlantic as well as the different tones of those still learning this language. Some determined learners try diving in at the deep end to speak, although sometimes they lack the words. Also, every now and then a ‘mamma mia’ pops up from what can only be an Italian person from Naples.

There is a lot of jumping from one language to another quite naturally, almost spontaneously. It is clear from the faces in the group that they come from across the globe, four continents at least. Of course, you can spot the newcomers by their lack of confidence, their shyness, their first steps in speaking. However, for others this is a regular thing to kick off the weekend and they know plenty of people at the gathering. Still, many of the conversations involve greetings, introductions and questions about nationality and occupation.

They are all part of a language exchange community: Málaga Tándem Club. Its founder is also there, welcoming all attendees who pay two euros for a practical conversation session in the language they are struggling to learn. She is Leticia Leermakers.

This project of hers is a reflection of her own life story: she was born in Argentina but, twenty years ago, due to the economic situation and instability in her own country, she packed her bags and came to Spain. Her first destination was Cuenca, arriving alongside 200 compatriots, all trained professionals in the hospitality sector providing a much-needed workforce in the more abandoned parts of Spain. She arrived with her flight paid, a work contract and housing.

Still, she decided to leave Cuenca for Benalmádena, where she also dedicated herself to the hospitality industry. But she felt stuck in a rut, that she needed to take a leap forward. So, she packed her bags again and settled in London to hone her English language skills, something she considered essential for her to do well. In fact, it was in London that she first tried doing what is now pretty much her main business: events organisation.

From tapas to talking

Here, in contrast with most language exchanges, the conversations are not so directed - for example, that you speak half an hour in Spanish then half an hour in English - rather that the conversation is allowed to flow. Leermakers thinks that this way the exchange is less repetitive and richer. That said, there are also some days, such as the Tuesday when SUR called into a meeting, when more organised games or directed activities are set up, like those that could take place in any language academy.

Similarly, Leermakers added, sometimes a teacher comes in with some pointers on language for open discussion. Some of the activities are also organised to help use languages in other contexts, including hiking, winetasting, visiting an exhibition, singing karaoke or kayaking. The objective is to gain fluency and communication skills for any situation.

A microcsm of Malaga

José Vallejo, a 42-year-old receptionist, was among the first to join the club. He told us that at work he has to speak English but it’s always the same conversation. So he benefits from the exchange sessions by talking about other topics, increasing his vocabulary and general confidence with the language. José Mila, 25, works at the technology park and what he seeks with these meetings is to maintain his fluency in the language. The same goes for Pablo Valderrama, a 28-year-old computer engineer who might be changing jobs shortly and in the new company he will likely need English.

In contrast, Michael Toeth is part of the population of foreigners living and working in the city, attracted by its job opportunities in the field of new technologies. Specifically, he is a computer consultant working for a US company based in Malaga where the working language is English. He is interested in learning Spanish and that is why, in addition to having hired a private tutor, he has joined these language exchange meetings. The same goes for Jennifer Nylen, a Chinese national who emigrated to Sweden and from there to Spain, to Malaga, mostly for the climate and the food. She works in a Swedish company where there is no opportunity to practise Spanish and mix with the local Spaniards.

Likewise for Milena Golinska, a 25-year-old Polish woman who works for a Danish company. In the workplace she barely gets to speak any Spanish and she wants to boost her skills in the language. Golinska also shared with us that, in her experience, the Spanish are shy about speaking other languages, for instance, when speaking English they look embarrassed. She believes that same shyness might be rubbing off on her when trying to speak Spanish.

On this question, here is a more authoritative viewpoint, that of an English teacher. Ben Seidel is a 25-year-old Scot who has only been in Malaga for just under a month, but who had already spent twelve years living in Spain, specifically in Estepa (Seville). He moved there with his parents when they retired. “English isn’t taught well as there’s too much emphasis on the grammar when the most important thing is being able to communicate.”

That is why Jaime González from Colombia, who first joined as a club member and now helps organise the meet-ups, gives so much importance to the Málaga Tándem Club initiative simply because it encourages ‘real’ conversation. Participants can talk about everything and anything, although they try to avoid contentious topics such as football, politics and religion. Still, sometimes it is inevitable that someone will touch upon such a topic - for example, when we met Victor Zelenin from the Ukraine. Victor did not come to Malaga as a result of the ongoing conflict back home because he was already here working as a computer engineer, but he suffers for his people from afar. His father and brother are at the front line and his mother has joined his sister living in the USA. The language exchange sessions help him, in addition to improving his level of Spanish, to have some fun and meet other people.

Amro Masri, a 29-year-old Palestinian, is also part of the group, so it is to be expected that others are curious to know his views, his family’s situation, especially when some Israelis are also staging massive protests against their own government. So yes, sometimes there will be some politics.

Therefore, with the potential for some complex conversations arising, 26-year-old chemical engineer Ibrahim Zaoum explained that, to gain the most from these language exchanges, you should have an intermediate level in that language, typically a B1. “If not, you won’t understand a thing,” he warned. The official line, however, is that the group is open to people of all levels. Zaoum belongs to the new self-taught generation, using computer applications, YouTube or online exchanges to learn a language, although he acknowledges that his secondary education laid the foundation stones for his language studies.

Digital nomads

Kam is British and has also chosen Malaga to telework having started Spanish life in Gran Canaria. Ferry van Dyk, 39, Dutch, chose to move to Malaga for love – though not his sole reason, he insisted. From here he works remotely for a software development company in his native country. After four months in the city, he already speaks a little Spanish.

Then there are also those who moved to Malaga for the sheer pleasure of living on the Costa del Sol, as is the case with Tass Copping, a 52-year-old British woman who wants to make the city her forever home. Even so, the language exchanges can also be a place for those who are just passing through, like Irish doctor Sorcha Nic Giolla, just here on a month-long stay to learn Spanish.

Perhaps the most startling case is that of someone who shall remain anonymous. Germany’s social services system signed him off for work-related stress. He felt he needed to maintain an active mind by either learning to play an instrument or learning to speak a new language. He chose the latter. Of all the possible languages he opted to learn Spanish in this friendly and cosmopolitan province.

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