Illustrations By Carolyn Gavin

Markham’s Language Café helps newcomers learn English

What makes learning a new language easier for newcomers? Tea, cookies and good company

Dark clouds and snowflakes threaten, but the Language Café at The Bridge church in Markham is warm and inviting, the smell of brewing coffee wafting through the bright atrium. This volunteer-run group meets every Friday morning to help newcomers to Canada build their English conversation skills.

Mei Tsang, one of the program coordinators, volunteers at the gatherings most weeks. A resident of Markham, she came to Canada from Hong Kong as a child and learned English in school. At home, her family spoke Cantonese, and so Mei found herself turning to her community to improve her English-speaking skills. At home, “I was never corrected if I made a mistake,” she says. “I didn’t get corrected until I was out in the world.” Learning alongside fluent English speakers made a difference for her, so she was excited when the opportunity to volunteer at the Language Café popped up.

The weekly drop-in sessions have been underway since 2017, and the crowd varies from week to week. The Friday I attend, the weather has kept some volunteers and participants away, but a friendly dozen sit down at a long table to review the week’s vocabulary. For each session, Mei or another coordinator creates a themed list of words and questions to get everyone chatting.

This week the group discusses media-oriented words, including journalist, tabloid, headline and paparazzi. (The word for paparazzi in Mandarin roughly translates as “pack of dogs chasing,” I’m interested to learn.) The group starts by telling one another how they keep up with the news. They move on to the programs and topics that interest them and debate how the internet has changed our collective news-gathering habits.

There’s a lot of cross-talk, side conversations and, best of all, laughter. The friendly atmosphere—over tea, coffee, cookies and chocolates—invites conversation. The participants speed up, taking new linguistic risks and asking follow-up questions as they get into the topic. This is more fun than a traditional language class, they agree, and more practical. Irene Duan, originally from China, likes the Language Café because it covers a wide range of subjects. She feels she always learns new and useful English words, “especially some more local words I’ve never heard before,” she says.

There’s a lot of cross-talk, side conversations and, best of all, laughter.

It’s not just the participants who feel great after this Friday meet-up. The volunteers are pleased to be doing something good for fellow community members. Yvonne Burris has been coming to the Language Café since May 2017. She likes the program because she can drop in without a fixed schedule and enjoy the camaraderie. “The people and their stories are interesting,” she says. “I admire them as adults coming here with no English at all and having to make their way through, navigating life and learning another language. And I’ve learned from them, too. It’s a win-win.”

Get involved: Anyone fluent in English is welcome to volunteer at the Language Café—not just native speakers. Sessions run on Fridays, from 10 a.m. to noon, at The Bridge church in Markham, Ont. Event listings are printed in the Markham Economist & Sun and other local papers, and online at