Of love and language

The Jerusalem Language Exchange allows people from different countries to engage in casual conversation for a couple of hours a week.

love.language 521 (photo credit: Ariel Hendelman))
love.language 521
(photo credit: Ariel Hendelman))
 Jerusalem is known primarily as the holy city, but it is also a city of converging cultures, attitudes, and languages. It is a city that brings people from all walks of life together. Every Tuesday night, the Jerusalem Language Exchange is also helping to bring people together.
Each week, people wanting to learn or teach a myriad of languages come together in a relaxed and fun environment for two hours.
The Language Exchange is housed within the Abraham Hostel on Jaffa Street, which has a surprisingly stylish aesthetic. The lounge area serves as the perfect meeting place for the 30 people who come to speak with, and learn from, each other. “Due to our recent relocation to the hostel, we now have even more international participants and more diverse languages to offer,” says founder Julia Drogen. They sit between the bar and the pool tables, which is a far cry from the typical classroom environment, and enjoy casual conversation with people of all skill levels.
Drogen is an immigrant from New York. She speaks English, Spanish, Chinese and Hebrew. With her incredibly diverse capacity for language, it’s fitting that Drogen started a language club. The Language Exchange began in Beersheba, where Drogen was living during her participation in a 10-month Masa program, in which participants either volunteer or work in Israel. She wanted to learn Hebrew, and also make friends in an English-speaking setting. “When I came to Beersheba, I didn’t know anybody and I wanted a way to interact with Israelis in English. I also wanted to practice my limited Hebrew that I needed every day to control my students,” she explains. The idea was to get Israelis, Anglos and other tourists together to speak in English and also learn Hebrew. She realized there were a lot of people in Beersheba who were traveling and working, who were not Jewish. It seemed hard for them to make friends, especially with divergent groups of people. The idea for the Language Exchange became a kind of community service program.
“One past participant from Spain who was working in Beersheba told me that it saved his life (at least his social life). He knew that he had something to do once a week, besides work, where he was getting out of the house and meeting other young people,” adds Drogen.
The Language Exchange was not originally Drogen’s idea; she had seen it in other places, such as Argentina and China. She saw how well it worked and fell in love with the concept of bringing foreigners and locals together to help one another improve their respective languages and forge lasting connections. To get the word out initially, Drogen started a Facebook group and got in touch with local universities including the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, advertising on its website. She promoted the Language Exchange in radio interviews and also took advantage of advertising opportunities on travel websites like CouchSurfing.
com. In Jerusalem, once people started getting involved, it spread by word-ofmouth like wildfire. The Language Exchange is still going strong in Beersheba as well, even though Drogen is no longer running it.
The number of people in attendance varies from week to week, but the Jerusalem Language Exchange has been steadily successful. With 20 to 40 participants each week after only a few months, there’s no telling how big it may become in the future. On any given Tuesday, one can expect to hear Hebrew, English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. There are often French, Italian, German, Swedish and Hindi speakers as well. Like any good idea that brings young adults together, the Language Exchange also functions quite well as a dating service. Although that was not the original intention, many dates and couples have come out of it.
Drogen believes there is a good possibility that her future husband may walk in one Tuesday night. “Hopefully my multilingual dream guy will walk in one night and want to learn Chinese, or maybe teach me Hebrew,” she says. She looks out for him every week, and hopes that they will be able to communicate when the time comes.