Polyglot Cafés Where Talk is Speed Speak


In Paris Café life is ritualised and sacrosanct but those intense Sartre-centered Left Bank debates are grudgingly giving ground to habitués sipping coffee with a spoonful of grammar, pinch of pronunciation and soupçon of Pygmalion-ism.

drawing for The New York Times

Jean-Paul Sartre (drawing for The New York Times – Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Modern Café grammarians are likely to be more laid back than Henry Higgins, the phonetics pedant of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, but just as motivated — and in case you need to brush up, a French translation by Augustin and Henriette Hamon of this five act comedy performed at  Théâtre des Arts, Paris on 27 September 1923 can be found here.

For while, as with Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, there may be little in common between Xavier, a 32-year-old Versailles travel agent, Carole, (23) a young American designer, and Jean-Louis, a recently retired former publishing director, they do all have an overarching  interest – perfecting a foreign language.

As the newspaper La Croix recently reported this group of acquaintances find themselves in the Snax cafe, near Beaubourg in Paris on Tuesday and several other nights in fact, for informal but carefully choreographed conversation and speed-speak gatherings.

They come regularly, along with dozens of other language lovers from many nationalities and of all ages, to practise a foreign language. At the café mine host, Patrick Rousseau, welcomes each guest personally and briefly explains the setup: “Here everyone is on familiar terms …  Participants indicate which language (s) they are interested in and pin on a name tag and the word ‘hello’ in all the languages they speak”.  While some labels bear just the single  “Hello”  and “Hi”  others offer a greeting in six or seven tongues and, according to Rousseau, polyglots make up about half of those who attend regularly.

“There are obviously certain high demand languages such as English, Spanish, Russian, German, Portuguese or Italian, but we also have people who speak Tibetan and Inuit! ”  he said adding that regional languages also spark interest.

Jean-Pierre, a former diplomat with at least seven languages under his belt, told the paper: “I even met a young Georgian woman here who used sign language “!

Inside the crowded cafe La Croix noted, the atmosphere is relaxed: “Being away from home – as most of those who attend are, speed speakers tend to come alone – and show real motivation and a desire to understand other cultures “. Interchanges are natural given the purpose is to practice fluency, the paper reported and after initial contact conversations can often take a more personal turn. “The language and phrases that we choose tend to reflect the temperament of those involved and their way of being, and among the regulars we often pick up and continue earlier conversations,”  says Jean-Pierre, the former diplomat.

So great is the demand for conversation get togethers that the two organisers Patrick Rousseau and Vincent Scheidecker have had to offer more focused meetings: Monday is now reserved for “Sinologists” Wednesday for the most common European languages and so on …

The two founders also offer conversation classes along the lines of “speed dating”,  where conversationalists pair off on a theme conversing against a stop watch and moving around the table to different themes and conversation partners.

Other activities include a barge cruise on the Seine which in March brought together several hundred people to celebrate the 6th  anniversary of the Polyglot Club and an annual international culinary competition  — the next in June at the Cité Internationale in Paris — where each participant enjoys a traditional dish from their country of origin.

The success of café-focused chat is undeniable, and is backed by an online community – PolyglotClub  – which  Patrick Rousseau and Vincent Scheidecker set up. The site and its forum helps connect Internet users, regardless of where they live, inviting them to meet around a café table, at a bar or restaurant in small groups to practice and improve their languages.

No membership is required, there are no obligations and no attendance fee: here, conviviality rhymes with the word ‘free’ (in a dozen or more languages)!

The idea extends beyond Paris with Polyglot Clubs dotted across France and abroad, including Lille,Tours, Lyon and Toulouse.

Online registrations can be made here: PolyglotClub.com.
The Paris programme is  Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday: all languages spoken. Monday: Chinese. Wednesday: French and one of these languages in turn: Spanish, German, Italian or Russian.
In the regions consult:  www.autourdumonde.asso.fr
In Nantes:  www.mediaetudiant.fr / student-life / polyglot-cafes

While on the subject of language, Pygmalion and pronunciation, here is the inimitable Rex Harrison with Audrey Hepburn in The Rain in Spain from the Lerner and Loewe hit musical My Fair Lady:


Other Websites:





Some useful addresses:

Polyglot Cafés in Paris

SNAX Café 182 rue Saint-Martin 75003 Paris

LE BIZ Bar 18 rue Favart, 75002Paris

Polyglot Cafés – NordPas de Calais:

Café de Paris à Lille

Café Le Kof’ty : 3 Digue Alliés à Dunkerque

Café de Paris à Calais

Café Les sisters : 42 quai Gambetta 62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer

Café Algys : avenue saint Jean Le Touquet

Polyglot Cafés in Lyon :

Café des cultures : 80 rue Montesquieu àLyon

Au Bon Beurre 47 rue Blefort àLyon

Polyglot Cafés in Toulouse:

The Gate – 34, rue des Blanchers  31000  Toulouse

Café Le Papagayo au 31, rue Deville àToulouse
Polyglot Cafés in Aquitaine:

The Charles Dickens Pub : 9, quai de la Douane,Bordeaux,

Other language pairs in Paris include:

Café polyglotte franco-allemand
mardi 20h30-22h30
Café Le Bidule, 8 rue de l’Hôtel de Ville
Groupe Facebook

Café polyglotte franco-anglais 
mardi 20h30-22h30
Café Le Delhi’s, 6 allée d’Orléans (cours des 50 otages)
Groupe Facebook

Café polyglotte franco-arabe
mercredi 20h-22h
Café L’appartement, 1 rue Gresset

Café polyglotte franco-chinois
mardi 20h30-22h30
Café Le Lieu Unique, 2 quai Ferdinand Favre
Groupe Facebook

Café polyglotte franco-espagnol
Lundi 21h-23h
Café l’Art Scène, 19 rue du Château
Page Facebook

Café polyglotte franco-grec
1er mercredi 19h-21h
Café le Flesselles, 3 allée Flesselles

Café polyglotte franco-italien
Mercredi 21h30-23h30
Café le Barkaff, 6 place du Bouffay
Groupe Facebook

Café polyglotte franco-scandinave
1 mardi sur 2, 21h00-23h00
Café le Baroudeur, 43 rue du Maréchal Joffre
Groupe Facebook

Café polyglotte franco-tchèque
1 mercredi sur 2, 20h30-22h30
28/03, 11/04, 25/04, 23/05
Café le Délirium, 19 allée Baco
Groupe Facebook

Story: Ken Pottinger


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