At Babbelonië conversation groups, practice makes perfect


People from all over the world – including locals – meet each week to share their own cultures and perfect their Dutch with native speakers

Multicultural meetings

It’s not always easy for newcomers to mingle with and practise their Dutch with Flemish locals, but the Babbelonië conversation groups offer weekly opportunities to do so all over East Flanders. Non-native speakers have even made radio reports in Dutch, under the banner of Radio Babbelonië, which are now used as educational materials during the multicultural meetings.

Participants come from all round the world: Vietnam, Morocco, the Philippines, Turkey, Iraq… At a meeting of the Babbelonië conversation group in Sint-Niklaas, I quickly feel like I’m in a melting pot of cultures – but not in a linguistic sense. Non-native speakers come here voluntarily to speak only Dutch for two hours a week, with each other and with native speakers, thus improving their language skills while learning about different customs and getting to know Flemish society better.

Babbelonië is an extensive network, with 15 groups in 12 East Flemish towns. It was started in 2006 by the Flemish government’s agency for integration and civic integration and three local organisations of the socio-cultural education network Vormingplus. It’s financed by the city governments.

“You can talk here with people with different language levels, but it’s not all about speaking Dutch. The meetings help me to better understand how things work here and thus to integrate,” says Ruaa from Iraq, one of the participants at Sint-Niklaas. “I can also ask others here for help, the group really feels like a family by now.” For a while, Ruaa also regularly went to the local library with a Dutch-speaking participant, to practise reading in Dutch together.

Truly addictive

Two fellow participants, Madeleine from the Philippines and Teodora from Bulgaria, nod in agreement. “The meetings become truly addictive, as they support you in your integration and you feel so much respect there,” says Teodora. “They also encourage you to further expand your knowledge, by reading and by becoming part of other organisations,” adds Madeleine.

Nicole, one of the native speakers, smiles when she hears the testimonies. “It’s heart-warming to see how much effort they put into improving their Dutch and being part of society,” she says. “But it’s also fascinating to hear through them about the different habits of other communities.”

The meetings become truly addictive, as they support you in your integration and you feel so much respect there

- Teodora from Bulgaria

This is an important point, says Johan Vermeersch of Vormingplus Waas en Dender. “We ensure that there is an equal exchange between the two sides,” he says. “For native speakers, it’s like they go on a trip around the world here, which broadens their view substantially. By bringing people together in a constructive way and showing the strengths of newcomers, we can offer a more positive view of migration than those based on prejudices.”

There are also many other conversation groups all over Flanders, which can be found on this website of the Flemish government’s agency for integration and civic integration. “But the Babbelonië meetings are unique because they are guided by professional coaches, instead of volunteers,” says Katleen Storms of the agency. “The groups are extremely diverse, and not just in a cultural sense.” People who have never learned to read sit next to someone with a university degree, refugees next to people who moved here for professional reasons.

“It’s not simple, but we make sure that everybody benefits from the activities,” says Els Bouchier, the coach at Sint-Niklaas. “I adapt my way of speaking according to the different levels and prepare broad topics for discussion that everyone can relate to.”

At the meeting I’m attending, the conversation revolves for a large part around cooking, exploring for example the different use of herbs in distinctive cuisines. At other meetings, participants can learn about various ways of greeting each other, religious customs, which sports are popular where, or the most common forms of transport. Typical Flemish phenomena are discussed as well, like the Saint Nicholas tradition.

We also read together the transcription of a fitting radio report, on a Moroccan supermarket owned by Belgians, made through an affiliated project – Radio Babbelonië. For almost two years, a dozen reporters of foreign origin made about 20 reports, on topics inspired by discussions at Babbelonië meetings. The reports were used to make education kits, to be used during those meetings.

The reporters were guided by Tjhoi Ng Sauw, a long-time radio producer at public network VRT who now lectures, but many of the participants had already acquired journalistic experience in their country of origin. That was the case for Ashet, who was a journalist in Syria before coming to Flanders.

“I discovered many places in Flanders thanks to Radio Babbelonië and the project helped to expand my social network considerably,” he says. “My Dutch might still not be good enough to become a professional journalist here, but it’s a lot better thanks to the practice.” The Radio Babbelonië initiative finished last summer, but there are plans for a follow-up project. “I am for sure up for more,” says Ashet with a smile.

Photos: (top) A Babbelonië meeting in Sint-Niklaas; (centre) participants Teodora and Madeleine
© Andy Furniere