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City Weekend

Hong Kong’s largest language group brings people together, to learn over coffee

Organiser of exchange meet-ups, which draw members from around the world, says many of them ‘want to talk to others outside of their comfort zone’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 9:19pm

When Hong Kong-born, Canada-raised Chad Kwong moved back to the city in 2012 he found it “hard to find a place to slow down and appreciate one another”. So began Coffee Break Language Exchangein 2014, now Hong Kong’s largest language group on Meetup.com, a site that brings together people with similar interests.

Around 30 people from all over the world meet for two hours each Sunday evening to practise foreign languages, organised by Kwong into small groups of varied ability.

Kwong, who is studying for a postgraduate diploma of education at the University of Hong Kong, estimated 80 per cent of members are regulars.

“People don’t have to come every single week. Usually they come once every two weeks, once a month. Or even once a year some who are visiting Hong Kong remember the event is still there, I am still there,” he said.

Members are mainly “working people, and sometimes retired university lecturers who want to pick up a new language or meet new people,” he said.

“Because they know a lot of people within their circle but want to talk to others outside of their comfort zone,” he added.

And meeting new people is the central premise of the group, which has attracted 15,000 subscribers from Meetup and Facebook combined.

Kwong’s aim is to use language as a platform for meeting others and learning about their experiences. “It is not necessarily integrating with their culture, but accepting and acknowledging different cultures,” he said.

“It is more passive learning than in-class lecturing. When you share experiences, that is when you can appreciate their culture and your own.”

Growing up in Vancouver, Kwong did not notice the beautiful scenery surrounding him each day, he said. Only after he moved to Hong Kong did he start to appreciate the nature, and culture, of Canada. “I think when you learn about other cultures, you learn more about yourself,” he said.

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“It helps me grow as a person. I believe we are lifelong learners and that we should always learn different things, no matter what it is.”

And Coffee Break helps people do that. Languages spoken at the meet-ups range from Mandarin to Spanish, French and Cantonese – a popular choice among foreigners in the city. But most people want to learn English, Kwong said.

Kwong said one group member “was doing the English test IELTS (International English Language Testing System) to go to grad school in the UK. He got a really high score for speaking after joining my event. So that directly quantifies how much he has improved”.

He added: “If they keep coming back, I guess it’s working.”