If things had gone to plan, Marisol Vasquez would have been in Abu Dhabi right now celebrating a very special occasion. Back in 2015, the former UAE expat created an informal group called The Language Club (TLC) to teach different languages to the multicultural community of the capital, for free. Mega plans were made to celebrate the fifth anniversary of TLC with a gala get-together in Abu Dhabi on April 15. Marisol was planning to fly in from Canada (where she is now settled) as the chief guest for the event.

With Covid-19 playing spoilsport, the celebrations have been put on hold. But for Marisol, the quarantine period has proved to be a good opportunity to travel down memory lane.

Learning the ropes

Moving to Abu Dhabi in 2007, Marisol noticed through social encounters that many expats from all over the world were struggling because of language barriers. “For many people, simple everyday tasks like hailing a taxi or talking to their children’s teachers were a challenge. For me, communication is an essential need. I knew I had the ability and the knowhow to put in place a community project to help people improve their language and communication skills… and that’s how TLC was born,” says Marisol, who is a professional translator and can speak six languages.

In the beginning, TLC started as a one-woman operation with eight students. As the group expanded, some members who were supporting the initiative became volunteers. Then a group of team leaders were allocated, who were in charge of the group’s communication and activities.

Today the club has grown to a vibrant group with more than 3,500 members and offers nine language exchanges: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, German and Arabic and caters to more than 45 nationalities.

A language coach, Carol manages all the language content and activities of the group

The format of the club is fairly simple. You get to practice or learn a language, but in exchange you must be available to teach your mother tongue, if needed. For some specific languages, like Arabic, there are volunteer teachers leading the groups.

Every week the language coaches plan the activities according to different topics and share them with the team leaders through Facebook/WhatsApp or their blog thelanguageportal.net. The topics range from talking about the news and current events to everyday life events (family, culture, food, science, sports, etc).  They also have grammar-based activities and role-play sessions. The last week of the month is dedicated to games, books, or songs.

The TLC meets up every week for two-hour sessions, mostly in Abu Dhabi. The topic is announced in advance on their Facebook page and interactive activities such as board games day, role playing and language workshops are arranged around it.

“We do a lot of role-playing activities because it’s a good way to take people out of their comfort zone and encourage them to use vocabulary they are not familiar with. We also have a language skills week where all the conversations are based on grammar or linguistics challenges,” says Marisol.

The TLC group meets at seven locations in Abu Dhabi, five days a week, mostly in daytime and some times in the evenings for working people. They have also branched out to a few locations in Dubai and are planning for the other emirates as well.

From one-woman operation with a few students, TLC now has more than 3,500 members with nine language exchanges

Over the years, the advantages TLC has offered to its members have been aplenty. People who walked in with a shy look in their eyes and barely spoke a word of a foreign language have now transformed themselves into very fluent speakers. While some have gained the confidence to be able to knock on doors for career opportunities, others have received promotions and even started new business ventures.

“We have helped members practice for language exams and immigrating. Some members have conducted parent-teacher conferences in their second or third language after practicing with us. Yet others have used their new language skills while on a vacation,” reflects Marisol. “What delights me most is that people also enjoy making new friends and learning first-hand about other people’s cultures. To put it in a nutshell, many members quickly transformed their personalities and got their confidence back just because they were able to communicate better… and that for me is priceless.”

Maintaining a legacy

Last year, when she was leaving for Canada, Marisol was admittedly sad, yet proud to leave behind a legacy, to three amazing women who are now the engine behind TLC – Carol Pinheiro (Brazil), Erin Eifert (USA) and Diana Salguero (Ecuador).

TLC reunions have been set in countries such as Austria, Canada, France and Germany, says Erin

As a language coach, Carol manages all the language content and activities. Diana, also a language coach, oversees the rules and regulations. Erin helps to ensure that all the social media channels respect the UAE laws. “They all started as regular members and quickly became team leaders and admins. They support the team leaders, manage their own groups by teaching their language, and work on learning one or two new languages,” says Marisol, who still serves as an admin of the TLC Facebook group.

For Carol, TLC is more than a language exchange; it is a cultural experience and a place to meet fantastic people. “We have a strong foundation with defined guidelines. Anyone interested in leading a language exchange group is welcome to join us by contacting our team managers. Only two things are needed: the love for languages and the willingness to help others selflessly.”

Erin strongly believes in connections of people through language, culture and laughter. Her greatest pleasure comes from members enjoying the mini communities that have been created as a result of TLC associations. 

“We have supported each other through new babies, graduations, illnesses here and of family members back home, moves and goodbyes, parenting challenges, jobs found, and jobs lost. We have celebrated birthdays, iftars, club anniversaries, and end-of-the-year get-togethers,” says Erin. “Many members come for a couple of years and go back to their countries. The friendships created will be cherished forever and guest-room reservations have been made for future TLC reunions in Austria, Canada, France and Germany, to name a few countries.”

TLC ensures that they adapt their extracurricular activities to the UAE’s characteristic celebration of diversity. “Last year we celebrated a Secret Santa gathering in December and we always go for iftar together and we often do some ‘potluck’ gatherings with the members’ traditional dishes. We also like to support charitable activities related to education,” says Diana.

But being a part of the admin team has presented a myriad of challenges. Since many languages are being used, the meaning easily gets lost in cultural perceptions, expectations, humour, word choice, translation, speaking, typing and autocorrecting. “Newcomers and members are encouraged to see that we are all language guides, not paid, professional professors,” says Erin. “There are many choices here in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to pay for language instruction that they may avail. Occasionally people do not understand we are volunteers giving our time and energy to one of the many worthy groups here in UAE. Sometimes we breathe through the misunderstandings, and other times we try to gently guide our members back to our purpose.”

Volunteers pass on knowledge

Syrian expat Kinana, 26, was initially reluctant to teach Arabic in the beginners and intermediate level. “But now, I actually feel happy passing on my knowledge,” says this pharmacist. “My students tell me they are able to communicate with Arabs in the community. They understand people talking in the street. They are able to help their children while studying Arabic lessons in the school, to know how to greet people, and some of them can talk with me in Arabic for five minutes at a stretch!”

TLC adapt its extracurricular activities to the UAE’s characteristic celebration of diversity, says Diana

Scottish fitness instructor Sarah Mcfadyen started out as an intermittent attender at the French/English exchange around four years ago. She found TLC to be extremely friendly, non-judgmental and fun. “Before I knew it, the club had built my confidence to progress and to speak a foreign language, which is something I never had, especially not at school,” says Sarah. “Now TLC has become part of my week, I have made friends there, and, living in the multinational city of Abu Dhabi, I have the confidence to have conversations with francophones elsewhere. This club has not only given me the confidence to progress, but the desire to work hard at the language, and I find myself using the French language in some way almost every day. On top of that, it has given me the opportunity to help non-native speakers improve their English in a very informal and enjoyable way.”

For team leader Vicky Kirby, TLC get-togethers are like meeting up with friends over coffee. “The only difference is chatting is in another language,” she says. “Sometimes the sessions are serious and sometimes they’re not! This group is much more than a way to learn language. I’ve met some amazing people from all corners of the earth.”

When Indian expat Sonobar Sabah attended her first class at Khalifah City she was surprised to witness the vibe, the crowd and the fabulous teachers. “I couldn’t believe this has been around for all these  years and I’ve only joined recently,” she says.

For Isabelle Despineux who is a certified French teacher, the challenging part was preparing activities that will be appropriate for the different levels, which would capture the interests for everybody. “It is important that we have fun, but I also want that the people sitting at my table have learnt something when they go home.”

“After five years, there are too many to thank but we have to specially mention our dedicated team leaders Malu Pinheiro, Albena Sabeva, Isabelle Despineux, Olimpia Vacca, Sandra Burlizzi, Olena Paul, Naema, Liliana Mejia and Sandy Bonesana and Sam Ebtissam Wahdan, our blog designer Maria Cristea and all the venues that support our initiative,” says Marisol.

Combating quarantine

To bide away the quarantine blues and ensure that members polish their skills, TLC has posted many activities on its Facebook group. Prominent among them is the 30-day challenge where members have to undertake one challenge per day and translate it into a language of their choice.

During quarantine, TLC is organising stay-at-home activities such as the 30-day challenge where members have to do a translation each day

From basic things like naming 10 items in their kitchen to more extensive translation of YouTube recipes, the challenge helps bring members one step closer to fluency.

“’I don’t have time!’ ranks among the top five language learning excuses,” says Marisol. “Well, now that cannot be used anymore. And apart from killing time, such activities also help you maintain your sanity.”

Carol adds: “A lot of our members are participating through Facebook or our WhatsApp groups. We also have some free online language conversations and workshops.”

The stay-home period has definitely given Marisol a chance to reflect on growth, both on an individual level and for TLC.

“After this, we will value the time we share with others more and appreciate what we have achieved so far,” she says. “(As for TLC) we can’t wait to restart our programme and hopefully grow even more so the whole UAE has the opportunity to improve their language skills. Our fifth anniversary milestone might be celebrated by each group separately, instead of a big gala-style celebration. It all depends on how our members feel after this pandemic dies down.”

To join the club please visit facebook.com/groups/languageclub.AD.

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