“Ze-bra-strei-fen,” Ismael, Sadeq, Ahmed and Aynob say in chorus while sitting around a table in the language café, before they start animatedly discussing the correct pronunciation: is the “Z” pronounced like an “S?” In Arabic there is no “ts” sound, as pronounced in the German letter “Z.” It’s not an easy phrase to start with, but the four refugees from Syria and Iraq don’t let themselves get discouraged, and repeat it again. “Zebrastreifen.” To ease their introduction to the topic, “Specifics of road transport in Germany,” I wrack my brain for a simple synonym: “Fußgängerüberweg” (pedestrian crossing)! Sure, the word is longer and more complicated, but the students’ motivation energizes me — they’re following my every word to learn as much German as quickly as possible.
Every Monday, the SINGA Language Café in Berlin brings together new arrivals and German speakers who want to get to know new people by learning languages together. “People who want to learn languages can meet here for language exchange; they can learn German in a comfortable atmosphere with tandem partners or in conversation groups,” Luisa Seiler, co-founder of SINGA Deutschland, explains to me. This Monday, Babbel was also there to give refugees coupons for our app and take part in the discussion session. Last week our coupons were well-received; many of the language café’s participants started learning straight away and are still learning very successfully with the Babbel app.
“With Babbel language courses and the SINGA Language Café, I’m learning the language of life,” Nour from Homs in Syria tells me. He smiles and continues, “In my previous language lessons, I always learned language from a book, but here I’m learning language from everyday life. For example, I learned the word ‘Spitzname’ (nickname) here. The combination of SINGA and Babbel has helped me so much, also because at the moment I haven’t been admitted to a language course.” Nour is a dentist and proudly announces that he has already learned all the names of the parts of the body with the Babbel language-learning app.
That’s exactly what connects the SINGA Language Café and Babbel: quickly learning to hold a conversation, everyday, practice-orientated learning and doing all this effectively. Ghayth from Syria, who is a refugee himself and has been in Germany for 8 months, plans the content at the language café. He knows from his own experience exactly which topics will be most helpful to the new arrivals in their everyday life: accommodation, transport, love, nightlife, politics and religion. This way participants can quickly get their bearings and hold simple conversations.
Luisa Seiler further explains to me that SINGA’s vision goes beyond language learning: “The aim is to make society more inclusive, to build connections through shared passions and exchanges between people. We want to make this accessible. By that, we mean that a local artist and a newly-arrived craftsman are brought together.” At the same time, it’s important that SINGA isn’t seen as a program made by helpers for refugees, but instead, everything is developed together with them. New people are always coming to the language café and they join in and come together for new activities depending on their interests; and just like that a network has emerged, a SINGA community. In this way, projects like Travel around the city have developed, at which, as Ghayth tells me, anyone interested can meet for shopping or a sport event to put their language skills into practice. Most recently, the career-oriented Mentoring Program has brought together new arrivals and Germans from similar careers. SINGA is currently looking for mentors for this who are interested in exchanging ideas with refugees about their career and their career progression in Germany.
After six weeks of the language café, the most fascinating thing for Luisa Seiler is still the participants’ curiosity: “I’m mesmerized by the speed the refugees are learning German.” As well, it occurs to me again and again during my visits to the language café how thankful the refugees are for every new word, how inquisitively they listen to song lyrics, how they silently repeat an expression with only the movement of their lips, and how they write every new word in their vocab books.
While I exchange ideas with Ismael, Sadeq, Ahmed and Aynob about the topic of road transport, they tell me that the language café is very interesting for them for different reasons. Sadeq finds the combination of Babbel and the language café great, because he learns to read, listen, write and speak with both and he likes the ambience of the café. He would like to study interior design.
Ahmed is fascinated by Babbel, because depending on the topic he can independently learn German with it to B1/2 level. For Aynob, it’s particularly important to learn German pronunciation, which has a few sounds he needs to get used to. His mother tongue Arabic, which uses a variety of sounds, gives him a very good base for pronouncing German words correctly. Ismael is enthusiastic, because he can learn German with Babbel and SINGA even in spite of his baby, who requires his full attention. Ismael, Sadeq, Ahmed and Aynob also meet regularly with a volunteer from the language café, for instance, last time they met at the lake in Wannsee. Mission accomplished: they got to know each other in the language café, share the same interests and come together for new activities.