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A few members of Café et Conversation Midwest join Jeff in taking a brief pause during a meetup at Sonny's in Aksarben Village.

By Jeff koterba

Want to Learn a New Language? Take the Leap!

June 23rd, 2024

As a kid growing up in South Omaha, I was surrounded by languages. My parents were both of Czech ancestry and I occasionally heard them, and other family members, speaking in Czech. In grade school, several of my classmates were Latino, and again, I often heard Spanish spoken by them and their families. While I did pick up on certain words and phrases in Czech and Spanish, respectively, I never fully studied either language.

Somehow, in school, I squeaked by without taking a foreign language. Although in adulthood, I dabbled in languages. Before my first trip abroad—to Russia just after the fall of communism—I studied a wee bit of Russian. And during a nearly two-year stint living in Innsbruck, Austria, I certainly heard German and Italian all the time. But aside from basic greetings and pleasantries in those languages I didn’t go beyond that.


I didn’t think I was capable.

My thoughts on this changed five years ago when I jumped into French language learning.

Ironically, my French journey began back in childhood when there was no French spoken anywhere in my world. But one day in third grade, our teacher rolled in one of those giant projectors. There was something romantic about the projector, almost as though the teacher had brought in an actual theater into our classroom. A theater from Paris.

She showed us a short film called The Red Balloon. If you haven’t seen it, the film captures the story of a boy’s friendship with a balloon as he follows it through the streets of Paris (watch here). I wanted to be that boy in Paris. Even though there’s very little dialogue in the film, in that moment, I was launched on a lifelong love of French culture and of the French language.

Outside of school, I’d watch The Pink Panther and The Inspector cartoons every Saturday morning. It was mostly The Inspector I loved because the series was set in Paris (it would be a few years later I’d learn that those cartoons came not from France, but from Hollywood!).

I’d go exploring in my school library (the now long-gone Hawthorne grade school in South Omaha) for books on French culture, art, and mostly, cartoons. As time went on, it was always in the back of my mind that one day I would learn French.

Later, as a cartoonist for the Omaha World-Herald, I would be invited to France for one of the biggest festivals for newspaper cartoonists in the world. Not in Paris but three hours south in the small town of Saint-Just-le-Martel. It’s a festival I return to nearly every year and through the years I’ve made last friendships with many of the residents. But what kept breaking my heart each year is that we couldn’t really communicate—most of the residents in Saint-Just speak English.

Finally, five years ago, I decided to act. Not only did I start with classes from Alliance Française Omaha, but I downloaded French-learning apps and even hired a tutor. The other thing I did right off was to start speaking French. Horrible French. Indeed, possibly the worst French you’ve ever heard.

Didn’t matter. I knew that if I wanted to be progress quickly, I had to get the mouth moving and the muscle memory going. I had to make mistakes.

Alliance had a monthly meetup for speaking French, which was helpful. But I craved more practice. Lots and lots of practice.

So, I launched a free, weekly conversation group now called Café et Conversation Midwest. What started as a group of one—me—has now turned into a group of over 400 members. Our group includes total beginners to advanced speakers—and even native French speakers.

More than anything it’s become a place of kindness and community. Great and helpful humans who just happen to be Francophones. And, oh, the joy of meeting in person!

How about you? Have you been dreaming of learning a second language? Maybe you studied in school, but you haven’t spoken the language in years. Or maybe you’re now finally taking classes or learning by app.

During the KVNO spring fund drive, many of you who donated (thank you!) received as a premium gift, an annual subscription to the language-learning app, Babbel. This isn’t a commercial for Babbel but I’ve been using it for a number of years. Mostly, because it gets you speaking…out loud.

Whatever your preference, there’s no shortage of learning opportunities online and in person. And certainly, many of our local universities and colleges offer language classes. And hey, if a conversation group in your target language doesn’t yet exist, maybe you can launch one!

However you go about it, it’s essential to practice speaking in real time. So, while my journey has been about French (and hopefully other languages in the future), the same theory of jumping in and practicing with others applies to learning any language. Even if it’s intimidating and scary. What’s the worst that can happen? Sure, you might make a mistake, but you’ll learn from it.

When you allow yourself to be vulnerable—when you put yourself out there—that’s when real progress can and will be made. Learning a new language not only builds empathy and confidence, it’s good for the brain. And along the way, it’s likely you’ll make new friends.

So jump in and before you know it, you’ll be speaking trés bien!


Here’s a partial list of learning and conversation opportunities in the area. If you know of others you’d like me to include, or if you’d like tips on starting your own conversation group, please email me:

Spanish meetup

German meetup

German American Society

Omaha Czech Slovak Cultural Club

Café et Conversation Midwest

Alliance FrançaiseOmaha

University language programs:

University of Nebraska at Omaha

Creighton University

Metropolitan Community College