SILC Café serves up coffee with a side of culture to ASU language students

Weekly social gathering allows students to practice speaking skills while learning about other people and places


three students playing Scrabble

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It is said that one of the best ways to learn a language is to immerse yourself in the culture. At Arizona State University’s SILC Café, a group of students and faculty have found a way to do that without even leaving campus.

“Language and culture is a social experience,” said Michael Tueller, associate director for administration with the School of International Letters and Cultures. “So we provide that here.”

SILC Café is a weekly social gathering for anyone at ASU who wants to learn more about international language and culture. Attendees meet every Wednesday during the spring and fall semesters from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in the Language and Literature Building, room 165; the first meeting of the fall semester is Aug. 23.

Tueller, who also teaches Greek, attends as often as possible and encourages his students to do the same. The atmosphere is intentionally informal, with people coming and going as they like, stopping for a moment here to add a word to the ever-evolving multilingual game of Scrabble, or lingering there to sample from the assortment of international epicurean delights.

“I’m French, and food is a way we bring people together,” Frederic Canovas said. He has been teaching the language at ASU for 17 years and appreciates the opportunity SILC Café provides to interact with students outside the traditional classroom setting.

The cafe itself began as a weekly tutoring session for SILC students that also offered free coffee. After it gained popularity, the organizers decided to open it up to everyone, regardless of their major. In addition to coffee, people began bringing food from around the world, as well as games and activities such as origami.

Barbara Fleming serves as the head faculty adviser for the student group SILC Attachés, which sponsors SILC Café. She’s there every week, making sure things run smoothly, engaging with students and learning new things herself. Fleming has taught French classes at ASU on and off over the past few years and espouses the benefits of language studies.

“It can make you much more desirable as an employee, and of course it enriches your life,” she said. “And think how it can widen the dating pool.”

At any given meeting, the languages spoken at the cafe can range from Chinese to Portuguese, Spanish to French, Greek to Japanese, and even sign language.

When asked to spell her name aloud, English junior Tonissa Saul begins signing the letters, then catches herself and laughs.

“I always wanted to learn sign language, and I’ve had jobs in retail where I thought it could be useful” because customers had hearing impairments, she said.

Knowing how to sign with them allows her to forgo speaking “through a little box,” that is, a smartphone or other tech device, which she feels can take away from making a more personal connection —something that is true of all languages.

SILC Attachés president and vice president, Michael Napolitano and Alexandra Carrillo (pictured at top left), agree that one of their favorite things about the weekly meetings are the relationships they’ve built.

Carrillo, a sustainability undergradaute student, said she originally came to SILC Café for the extra credit but soon realized it had much more to offer her; after spending her first couple of years at ASU wondering where she fit in, she suddenly felt a sense of belonging and purpose.

“It was like, ‘Yay! I finally found my niche!’” Carrillo said. “I’ve made such great connections with students and faculty … that I wouldn’t have had without it.”

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Top photo: (From left) SILC Attachés vice president Alexandra Carrillo, civil engineering sophomore Morgan Alkahlout and business sophomore Amanda Garza play an improvised game of French/German Scrabble. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now. 

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