Tel Aviv start-up aims to change the world, one language learner at a time

FluenTLV pairs language learners with native speakers from Amharic to Tigrinya.

FluenTLV (Ania Bessonov)
Jessica Tulchin knows a thing or two about learning languages. Growing up in Belgium to American parents, she was fluent in English and French, learned Dutch in school, mastered Hebrew in the Israeli army, and picked up Spanish and Portuguese on a trip in South America after her IDF service.
When Tulchin returned to Israel's "aliya capital" of Tel Aviv, she wanted to share her love for communication. FluenTLV, a new language-learning start-up is the innovative result.
FluenTLV was founded by Tulchin, Willy Hayman and Fabricio Scheinsohn, all new olim. As newcomers to Israel themselves, they understood that learning the local language was key to their full immersion in their new homes.
But the three polyglots were dissatisfied with the inefficient and frustrating methods commonly used in language instruction.
Instead, FluenTLV gets language learners out of the classroom and in touch with the culture. For the past two years, the start-up has hosted a weekly language exchange event at popular bars, hostels, and gathering places in Tel Aviv. Native speakers and learners of at least 12 languages, including English, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and French, gather around different tables. Participants are invited to sit at the table of the language they wish to learn and interact with native speakers for the duration of the event. Each participant also receives a colored bracelet indicating his or her native language, showing others which language to speak with them.
“You enter a world where you can discover all these different languages and all these different cultures in one place,” Tulchin said.
Tulchin explained that native speakers, who are also referred to as ambassadors, are central to the FluenTLV method.
“You don’t just go to the table to practice," she said, "you meet an actual native speaker. You meet a person who belongs to that culture.”
“It’s different from learning a language in a book," concurred Anna Schuster, a FluenTLV participant learning Spanish and Portuguese. "You learn words that you wouldn’t learn in other places because you’re talking with people who are using these words," including slang and popular expressions.
To keep the quality of the learning high, FluenTLV has established a 1 to 5 ratio of ambassadors to learners. For languages like Hebrew, Spanish and English, each table often has at least 15 different ambassadors.
But FluenTLV does more than just teach languages and offer cultural experiences. The start-up also aims to make an impact on society.
FluenTLV events have included language tables for Tigrinya, spoken by Israel's large community of asylum seekers from Eritrea, as well as Amharic, spoken by Ethiopians, and Israeli Sign Language.
“In what other situation in everyday life does the average Israeli get into contact with an Eritrean person?” asked Tulchin, who said that connecting with individuals from other cultures provides a first-hand exposure to the diversity of Tel Aviv. “We don’t want [Israelis] to hear about [minorities] in the news or stereotypes, we want to create those links of communication.”
The start-up also gives expats an opportunity to continue speaking their mother tongue even far from home. Siddaq Singh, an MA student in Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University, has been coming to recent FluenTLV events and teaching participants how to speak Hindi.
Many Jews who trace their ancestry to India live in Israel, Singh said, “and the younger generation doesn’t know a lot of Hindi so they come to practice.”
“They want to learn back the root languages, so I feel very proud to do it,” Singh said.
In a multicultural city like Tel Aviv, FluenTLV can draw on a large pool of native speakers of a host of languages. But Tulchin explained that the language exchange program is even more necessary in less diverse cities.
With the language learning project approaching its two-year mark, FluenTLV now also offers immersion classes that give a new spin on traditional classroom methods.
The first run of the course is for Hebrew and French. The students include native speakers of both languages, and the class is taught half in each language. Instead of the teacher asking a student to practice while the rest of the class just listens, FluenTLV students interact with native speakers of the other language right there in the classroom. The facilitator leads discussions of popular topics that give insight into the two cultures, including popular movies, art, history, food, and stereotypes.
“My dream is to impact how schools teach languages,” Tulchin said. For example, having native Arabic and Hebrew speakers studying together could have a beneficial impact on society, she said.
“When a school teaches Arabic in Israel, the class would include Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis and have them practice Arabic together.”
“I came to Israel with the personal goal of improving society,” Tulchin said. Enabling communication with FluenTLV is her way of achieving that goal.