Voluntary language learning

Would you like to practice your language skills without being corrected or graded by a teacher, in an informal and relaxed environment? Then perhaps a language café in a library, led by a volunteer, is the thing for you. The idea is to get away from the concept of school.

Barbara Vehrs. Photo: Annika HjerpeThere are language cafés in libraries all around Sweden; in Stockholm, it started as a language exchange project where one library gathered together a group of people interested in learning a language so they could meet and exchange languages with each other. Now, several libraries in Stockholm arrange cafés with groups and a leader, who is most often a volunteer. The language café is usually one hour long and takes place mostly in the evening.

Some of the Swedish language cafés are daytime events and are arranged in collaboration with an educational association. Most of the language cafés in other languages – Japanese, Italian, Russian and German, for example – are led by volunteers who once participated in a Swedish language café and now want to pay it forward. To find leaders for the Swedish cafés, the Stockholm city library puts an ad on its Web page; it always receives a lot of responses.

Not like school

The idea of the language cafés is to get away from the concept of school; it is meant to be informal and pleasurable so that all participants feel relaxed and able to join the conversation, without being corrected or inhibited by the fear of making mistakes.

The Swedish language cafés are often frequented by students from SFI–Swedish for immigrants. The cafés offer them an additional chance to practice Swedish in a more relaxed environment. Or, as one SFI student put it: “At the SFI school you learn a lot, but it wasn’t until I came to the language café that I got the self-confidence to try speaking.”

Barbara Vehrs, from Kiel in northern Germany, came to Stockholm in December 2012. She simply fell in love with the city while visiting on vacation, and with a Finnish man who lives here.

“It is hard not to like Stockholm, when the weather is clear and the sun is shining. When I came here I learned Swedish by myself and went to a Swedish language café to practice. I thought it was a good idea. It was a little difficult for me to find a job here and I wanted something to do, and there was no German language café,” she explains.

She still leads the German language café at the Kungsholmen public library in Stockholm, although she now has a job. Barbara Vehrs explains that usually about 10 to 16 people come to her café, and she prepares two or three subjects to talk about.

“It can be something I read in the paper or something that is of current interest in Germany. The participants can also bring up something they want to talk about. I try not to correct people when they make mistakes; unless the mistakes are very big, they should just speak.”

Cherfull atmosphere

The participants are starting to arrive. Barbara has baked a cake. Some of the participants discuss their arthrosis, in German. They call Barbara teacher and she is cutting her cake.

“You seem to be a tight lot,” one newly arrived participant says. “Perhaps I’m intruding?” The others laugh and their laughter tells him that he is welcome.

The group is mixed in age; about 16 people have arrived by now. Barbara is passing the cake around and putting cups and thermoses with hot water on the table. Milk, instant coffee and teabags are on offer.

The atmosphere is cheerful and spirits are high; people are already speaking in German with each other before Barbara gets started. By now, there are 21 participants crowded around the table in the small conference room that houses the German language café.


Barbara introduces herself, and says that since she knows some of the participants, but not all, everyone should introduce themselves with their name and tell something they liked about their Christmas and New Year. One participant says a word that Barbara writes on the whiteboard. She explains its meaning in German.

Around the table people are introducing themselves, talking about their holidays and how they learned German. Most of them studied German in school; some of them have children who married Germans and they want to be able to speak to their grandchildren. A few have one German parent.

Two more participants arrive during the presentation while Lotta La Mothe, 53, is explaining that she has a German father and a Swedish mother, and that they never spoke German at home; she learned it in school. She Googled “German conversation” and found the language café.

“I wanted to maintain my German and make speaking to my relatives easier. I had German in school for six years and repeated the last year a few years ago. I also took a course at university. This is the second time I’m here and I feel there is a lot in there; I understand everything I read and hear,” she says.

Different ages

Barbara helps when someone is struggling to find the right word. One woman is very shy and only says her name, but no one is pressuring her to say more. And that’s OK. Claes-Göran Ingestedt, 66, has participated in a German language café for about five years.

“I do it to improve my German. I don’t really need it, I’m seldom confronted with it but it’s a big language and it’s fun,” he says. “I’m not sure the language café has helped me to speak a lot better, but I understand much more,” he continues.

The youngest participant today is Rickard, 14. He found a notice about the language café in his local library. “I think German is incredibly interesting and I haven’t spoken it much; it has mostly been written exercises.”

He has been studying German in school for two years and speaks it better than many of the participants that have studied the language for six years. “I came here to speak and listen to German. It feels OK, you shouldn’t be shy, everyone is on their own level and talking and I don’t feel awkward,” he says, adding: “I will be back.”

Many languages

Barbara asks which languages the participants can speak and a Rumanian man says he can also speak Japanese, and the conversation is turns towards Chinese. After half an hour two more participants enter the crowded room. “If you can find a chair,” Barbara says, and the conversation about the Chinese language continues.

One woman has noticed that Germans always want to speak English when she meets them travelling, but before they wanted to speak German. One man worked as a German translator and speaks very good German very often. Barbara skillfully keeps the conversation going, but when the group is this big – 25 participants by now – it is difficult to get everyone to speak; some are always more quiet than others.

German dialects, lederhosen and German cakes are subjects discussed before the hour of German conversation is over. Next time Barbara wants to find a solution, she needs another volunteer so the group can be divided in two, or close the doors after 16 participants. It is too much with such a big group, too difficult to get everyone to talk. But it’s great that so many people want to come and practise their German.The small conference room in the language café is crowded. Photo: Annika Hjerpe

Editor-in-chief National Library of Sweden


  • Boken kommer (The book is coming): Library staff or volunteers bring books and other media home to those who cannot get to the library themselves.
  • Läskraft (reading force): Volunteers receive training and then read to people with dementia.
  • SeniorNet Sweden: A volunteer organization that provides older adults training in, and access to, computer technologies, sometimes in libraries.
  • Legal councelling: Lawyers and attorneys volunteer to give legal councelling. In Stockholm this is available in several libraries; each visitor usually gets about 15 minutes of councelling. At Kungsholmen library a lawyer is in the library for an hour every second week.
Claes-GöranIngested. Photo: Annika Hjerpe LottaLaMothe. Photo: Annika Hjerpe