Creating Community Through Language

Joanna Bevan
Friday, 18th December 2015

Joanna Bevan explains how she set up a language cafe for her local community using permaculture principles.

A year ago I set up Speak Street Pop Up Language Café using permaculture principles, here’s my story so far…

The familiar tune of Happy Birthday fills the air with some unfamiliar foreign lyrics celebrating the Speak Street pop up language café’s 1st birthday party. French, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and Somali are just some of the languages spoken by the attendees of the Speak Street Sessions; a reflection of the 120 plus languages spoken locally in my area; Islington, North London.

Speak Street is a pop up language café based on permaculture design, where people can come and practice their conversation skills supported by local volunteers. My dream is that one day Speak Street will be an established permanent café but until that time, I use the abundance of local venues as temporary space instead. English learners get free weekly classes and those wanting to learn French and Spanish pay a small fee for their sessions. Native speaking volunteers play a key role in helping provide some real life conversation practice. Speak Street classes emulate a café atmosphere conducive to the type of fluency that comes easily over a cheeky glass of wine or a warming cup of coffee.

My community is my eco-system and I have built permaculture principles into Speak Street. 

My perma-examples:

- I introduced feedback loops at the end of class to help design the next lesson.

- For me my edge was my marketing strategy, looking at where my communication met the eyes and ears of potential Speak Streeters.

- I value and use diversity by structuring the class for all levels, which can be tricky but with a bit of creativity and help from volunteers it can be done!

- Speak Street is creatively responding to change by using local venues at quiet times which supports the local economy and creates a free learning space.

- I use and value renewable sources in our arts and craft materials.

- Speak Street sessions are designed to integrate people rather than segregate them so everyone can learn from each other.

Speak Street is all about social learning and fun. It is a place where people can improve their language skills, meet others and celebrate diversity. It is a positive direct response to the increasingly right wing rhetoric against migrants and refugees. 

I started Speak Street just over a year ago after pitching the idea to the School for Social Entrepreneurs. I’d been cultivating the idea for many years, the result of a fusion between my background in Community Development and as a linguist – I’ve been the foreigner many times and know the benefit of being able to practice first hand with native speakers. 

Five years ago I completed a Permaculture Design Course in Sieben Linden Ecovillage in Germany, led by the late, great Patrick Whitefield. I had an interest in sustainability but absolutely no idea about gardening. Most of the other students were there to design their own patch of land. I grew fascinated by permaculture and began thinking of ways to integrate it in to my life; permaculture for the landless. I’d previously only considered permaculture to be synonymous with gardening of some kind, I now realised this was such a narrow application and could be such a useful approach to life.   

We are uncovering all the untapped potential on our doorstep! From volunteer graphic designers looking to boost their portfolio, to café owners happy for the extra custom at a quiet time.

My neighbour Toni Jenkins was one of the first to get on board with Speak Street. She is French with Spanish ancestry, and for her, what interested her in Speak Street was, ‘the community factor’.

“I had been living in the area for several years and had been struggling with my social life, having to go across London to find social activities. Speak Street was key to giving me the confidence that we could have a ‘community’ in the area. I think it is important when you are building a social circle that the people you spend time with live nearby, otherwise it is hard to build social links. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Speak Street also had a social goal with the migrant population, which I am keen to be a part of. I think people learn faster when they are having fun. The added advantage is that it is local, by locals for locals, and that is key to building community around the event.” 

Speak Street has attracted over 200 volunteers, each motivated by a variety of reasons. John Aylward is one volunteer who wanted to be useful in retirement.

“I volunteer for a couple of charities already and with Speak Street I can maintain my own languages whilst helping others to improve. I became fluent in three languages by immersion and am convinced that it is the best way to improve. It is a vital and entertaining way of advancing, far from dry book learning, and plunging into practical situations/role play and talking ‘warts and all’ is, I think, the quickest way to gain vocabulary and a vernacular command.”

“The atmosphere at Speak Street is relaxed and friendly. Everyone concerned is positive in assisting others regardless of their level and as it is not given to everyone to feel at ease ‘making a fool of themselves’, it is the communal good spirit that encourages even the shyest and most nervous to give it a go.”

Speak Street leads sessions in English, French and Spanish. We have recently teamed up with the Islington Refugee and Migrant centre to offer free classes to refugees. We’ve drawn maps of the community and have had role plays with landlords. The idea is to get talking and learn the lingo from the locals.

Tatjana Laric, one of the Spanish learners shared what she gained from coming along.

“I have learnt many things about different languages often through funny misunderstandings, which are then resolved. Humour and conversation are a great way to learn and teach languages as it gives a memory to which the lesson can be attached. The fact that the native speakers are volunteers speaks loads for the nature of the programme. The people who go to Speak Street are special in that they all want to learn/help/meet people.”

Speak Street is flourishing and true to the permaculture principles it is adapting to change and valuing diversity. I feel the Permaculture movement has much to offer but needs to shake the image many people have about what Permaculture is. It is an amazing flexible design tool and I would love to see it used more widely. I am an advocate of going beyond the cult of Permaculture and open to others joining me on Speak Street.

Top tips for using Permaculture in your own community project:

  • Think about your skills/passion and how you could meet others who share this or need your skills and try and create your own loop.
  • Draw a map of your community and highlight all the assets, then see how much of your materials etc. you can source from less than 1 mile away.
  • Investigate hyper local platforms such as streetlife and streetbank, they can be great for spreading the word, recruiting volunteers and sourcing materials!
  • Take lots of photos and share them so people can see what to expect A small thing but really makes a huge difference!

For more information visit

Further resources

Watch: The tiny, mobile community classroom

People and Permaculture

Watch: Community-owned energy systems


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