Tandem language-sharing program comes to UAlberta

Student-run initiative connects cultures and builds communities.


So you want to learn a language, but the formality of a classroom just doesn’t appeal.

The Tandem Program is a new, entirely student-run initiative on campus. It’s a two-way model of conversational language learning that pairs up participants who wish to teach their own language while practising their skills in another.

You teach me Spanish, I’ll teach you Japanese. And so on.

But the Tandem Program isn’t just about teaching and learning a language, it’s also about shared cultural experiences.

Upon application to the program, participants must indicate at least two languages to learn or teach, and some languages are more difficult to match up. “It was very hard finding someone who wanted to learn Swahili and also wanted to teach English,” laughs Jenny Osorio, co-founder of the program along with PhD student Hansy Herrera. “We’ve had Icelandic, Punjabi, but our main languages are English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, German and Korean.”

Within weeks of the announcement that the Tandem Program would be up and running in fall 2015, the two were inundated with applications. Last term, 260 students signed up, and with registration now open for the winter term, registrants may surpass previous numbers.

Tandem is a popular language learning program throughout the world, but has only recently been offered in Canada—first at UBC and now at the University of Alberta. Colombian-born Herrera became familiar with the program while taking his master’s degree in liberal arts from the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland, which then inspired him to bring the program to the U of A while undertaking doctoral studies in Spanish and Latin American literature. 

“It’s not only about the language, but also the experience,” he says. “We want to build a multicultural community. We want to welcome everybody, as long as we can find a linguistic partner.”

Jenny Osorio is also from Colombia but has been in Canada for 10 years. After completing her BA in French creative writing and Hispanic studies at the Université de Montréal, Osorio moved to Edmonton to enrol in a master’s program in applied linguistics. 

“Here at the University of Alberta, we didn’t see anything like it,” she says, referring to the Tandem Program. “And also, being new students, being international students or, for me, being in a new city, it’s hard to get to know people. Tandem is a good way to get connected, so we thought, ‘Why not?’”

The Tandem Program allows students to practise the language they love, regardless of their proficiency, and because it is outside of a classroom, the emphasis is on socialization. Participants are also encouraged to share their cultural experiences with their partner. 

“It’s easier when you have just two people,” explains Osorio. “When you hear from someone, ‘Oh yeah, I’m from this country and you should see this, or watch this TV series,’ it gets more personal and the students are more eager to discover it. So it’s not only about the language but also that personal experience.”

Now that Tandem is officially registered as a student group with the Students’ Union, Herrera and Osorio are applying for grants and hoping to bring in student volunteers to help facilitate the program. High on the priority list is a regularly scheduled monthly or bi-monthly meeting where additional guidance in terms of topics and other resources can be offered, as well as a designated space.        

Both Herrera and Osorio stress that it’s not just about fluency, it’s also about connection. 

“The university is so international, but at the same time we are building a community,” says Herrera, who was recently named Latino Canadian Student of the Year by the Latino Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “Winter is long, and this is something students can look forward to. That is why Tandem is so successful—it brings everybody together!”