“THE HARDEST thing to do in your second language is to meet native speakers,” Dan Ednie said.
It was this that spurred him to found Language Connection in 2009.
“In these language exchanges, we exchange the languages. The Australians that are learning Chinese will help the Chinese students with their English. During the same event, the Chinese students are helping Australian students with their Chinese,” he said.
Apart from teaching linguistic skills, it’s also encouraged cultural understanding and fostered new friendships among its participants. Approximately half the 40 to 50 attendees at Language Connection are international students (mainly from China, Japan and Korea) while the other half are local Australians learning either Chinese, Japanese or Korean.
While everyone has heard the story about international students “wanting to be included”, Ednie maintains that Australian students who are studying the native languages of international students feel the same way.
“They feel that their language ability isn’t good enough for them to converse with. So the real core of what we’re doing is creating rooms where everyone’s a learner. It’s sort of like having a safety net – everyone is there to learn a language and people can learn from each other, make mistakes and also make new friends,” he said.
It is precisely the friendship factor that first got Dan Ednie started on learning Japanese – arguably the first step of how Language Connection came to be.
When Ednie was in high school, he had two best friends. Both were Japanese. While they got along fine, there existed one problem: whenever Ednie visited their houses, their mothers would walk in and speak Japanese to them, a language that he did not understand.
“All of a sudden, I’m outside the group – I wasn’t able to participate in this part of my best friends’ lives,” he said.
After completing his final high school exams, Ednie decided he would learn Japanese. He spent at least three hours a day studying the language from a book. And when he arrived at Melbourne University, he decided to join the Japanese Club.
“Suddenly, I had all these native speaker friends. They would help me with my Japanese – I was making sentences that people would respond to.”
Ednie recalls the exact moment in 2006 when he first said a complete sentence in Japanese that someone fully comprehended and responded to.
“I remember this huge rush of excitement that sort of coursed through my feet and into my mouth. Because previously, I was psychologically and emotionally convinced that it was impossible to speak a foreign language… I never really expected to be able to do it.”
Ednie then started going to Japanese language exchanges in Melbourne, making more new friends who helped him with the language. Within a year and a half, he was fluent and was even able to live and work in Japan as a sports instructor for three months.
Then in 2009, Ednie realised that there was a huge Chinese population at Melbourne University.
“I realized that if I don’t learn Chinese, I’d really miss out. We have a lot of people who speak Mandarin, and it’s a fantastic opportunity for Australians to understand a different culture… I believe that Australian and Asian relations are going to be increasingly important in the future.”
However, unlike how there were many Japanese language exchanges in Melbourne, there were no Chinese language exchange events available in the community for Ednie to attend. Due to this – despite having almost no Chinese friends – Ednie was motivated to start organizing events.
“One person came to the first event that I ever ran. And I spoke to that person – we did Chinese for about an hour and a half. And from that initial meeting, the group grew into Language Connection.”
With a central team made up of eight people, and two teams of volunteers of roughly eight to ten people each, Language Connection is “getting to be a fairly large organisation now”.
The teams aim to come up with new events which will connect groups of Chinese, Japanese and Korean-speaking international students, and Australians learning the foreign languages.
“Both groups could get so much more from being around each other and connecting through language. We want to empower young language learners through language-based events.”
RMIT masters student and regular visitor to Language Connection Yi-Ping Chang said “I am so surprised when I can hear foreigners speaking Chinese. It is really impressive though, and I can improve my English as well as help them.”
Language Connection also wants to help people improve their confidence. Ednie looks back on how much his friend Luke has changed by coming to the language exchanges.
Luke initially came to his first event only because two of his friends had dragged him along. At first, he barely spoke English and had answered Ednie’s questions (in Chinese) with only very lukewarm responses.
“None,” Luke had answered, when questioned how many Australian friends he had made back then.
“I’ll be your first Australian friend,” Ednie had responded.
Ednie tells me that “to this day, we’re still really good friends.”
And today, Luke confidently runs the registration for one of the weekly language exchanges.
“It’s people like him that have given me the determination to keep doing it, because I know that those differences are worth the effort that goes in,” Ednie said.
Another aim of Language Connection is to help international students feel more included in Melbourne.
Ednie understands that many international students are “confused as to why Australian students don’t talk to them”.
“Australian students don’t really socialise at university much – they just go to class and leave after that to go to a part-time job or a volunteer group or some sort of activity – so joining those groups is how you will make friends with them,” he said.
“The language ones are the most obvious – it’s very easy to participate in them. You’re actually helping Aussies, and vice versa.”
Ednie stresses the importance of this “vice versa” aspect of language exchanges. He tells international students to “see it more of a two-way relationship”.
“Rather than seeing the local people as the ones who are solely giving something to you, you need to see it that you have something to give as well,” he said.
Language Connection runs every Thursday and Saturday. Visit the website for more information.