An Ear-Opening Experience

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By Alysha Baratta
(Culture Cafe participants)

We Are HuH (Humans Understanding Humans) is a platform run by Options Community Services that offers activities and resources to connect people together, break down stereotypes, and create & strengthen multi-cultural communities. We design activities and resources that we hope groups all across Canada will utilize. One of our activities is called Culture Cafe which is an online community gathering for people of all ages and English language abilities. On the surface, it’s a weekly Zoom meeting that involves a presentation and then cross-cultural 1-on-1 breakout room conversations. Some humans come to practice English conversation, while others come to socialize with people from different cultures. At its heart, it’s a place where growth happens. What kind of growth? All sorts, in all different directions, for everyone involved.

-Farhan from Syria, Culture Cafe participant

“I know a little bit about so many people and countries now. Connecting with people of different cultures removes the hatred and bad feelings against each other. It’s not people’s fault what politics does and because of politics people have misunderstandings about each other.”

Grow your ears

Dr. Vijay Ramjattan researches accentism and the workplace barriers that racialized people face in Canada. While they’ve been told their accent is the barrier, it’s actually everyday racism. Perpetuating the idea that a  ‘neutral accent’ exists is thinly veiled coding that centers whiteness as the goal. Dr. Ramjattan discusses his work in this podcast, (around the 38 minute mark, but listen to the whole thing!) He makes the point that ‘accent reduction’ classes aren’t the answer to this problem. Rather, the responsibility lies on the listener to improve their listening skills. I’ve been privileged as a white teacher to never experience microaggressions questioning my expertise in English, and I’ve also gotten the chance to hone my listening ear over many years. Culture Cafe can offer this opportunity for growth. While this group can’t single-handedly undo the institutional racism that’s baked into everything we do, it can help confront the assumption that talking like a white person is the right way.

Grow your wealth

If you happen to live near a long-numbered house in Surrey, did you know your neighbour walked over 4,000 kilometers across China in the 1950s to collect soldiers’ stories? Of course you don’t – you’ve never had a chance to talk directly with her, but you’d be richer if you had. By now you’ve probably picked up that I’m not talking about monetary wealth. I’m talking about the richness of glimpsing into someone else’s life. Culture Cafe offers bilingual conversation prompts to elicit stories and other personal memories. Often I click “leave meeting” feeling humbled by these snippets of histories, and honored that someone has chosen to share them with me.

Pandemic or not, we aren’t the best at knocking on our neighbour’s doors and getting to know them. Although we’re excited to make real the post-Covid potluck plans, Culture Cafe will always have an online component. It’s a model of low-barrier community gathering to consider even after things “get back to normal”.

Grow your approach to language

I know from my own life that language learning is more effective when tied to personal experiences. When I close my eyes and think of Spanish, I feel a warmth from within. Everything is shades of burnt orange and crispy plantain yellow. I think of my Chilean host mom’s red tinted hair and bright matching lipstick. The Czech language tastes like slightly melted and refrozen snow. It’s refreshingly coarse, just like my friend Honza’s dry zingers. The language-learning app Duolingo has increased my Arabic literacy tenfold, but the lifeless, mechanical voice does little to solidify new words and meanings in my mind. But when my Syrian foodie friend tries my biscotti and, with raised eyebrows, says  a “tayib!” (delicious!) of approval – it’s stored in my visceral vocabulary forever.

So, who’s burning English into your students’ brains? Where are they finding memories and sentiments to attach to their expanding vocabularies? One Culture Cafe chatter told us that throughout 5 years in Canada, the only person they had ever spoken English with was their teacher.  It showed. Not because their speech was unintelligible – it wasn’t. They had serious doubts and low confidence. While not underestimating the importance of an engaging teacher, that’s not how this human’s journey should be. 

The human connections that Culture Cafe chatters experience make language memorable, and the friendly, listening ears breed confidence in English learners. We all know that language is more than stringing words together, but we so rarely have a place to put ourselves out there and use our words meaningfully.

Grow your practice

As you can see, I think the Culture Cafe we host at Options is pretty rad. But beyond our single gathering, we think the model and tools can be transformative for people looking to start new kinds of conversations with people they’ve never talked to before. Ready to open the ears of everyone you know? If you’d like to catalyze the storytelling, exchange, and learning in your community, check out www.wearehuh.com or e-mail hello@wearehuh.com to learn how.

Alysha Baratta is a learner, educator, facilitator, geographer, puppy mom, and stress-baker. She currently works from home on the unceded traditional territories of the Katzie, sc̓əwaθenaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsawwassen), səl̓ilwətaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsleil-Waututh), S’ólh Téméxw (Stó:lō), Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Stz’uminus and Xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples for Options Community Services. This project is funded by IRCC’s Service Delivery Improvement fund.