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SOCIAL CLIMES

Say Adios to the Classroom

October 16, 1994|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a Sunday afternoon at the Cafe Tropical in Silver Lake, while the espresso machine sputters its endless stream of coffee and steamed milk, a small group of students lounges on couches in the back room, sipping cafes con leche and learning la importancia del pasado.

The importance of the past tense.

"? Que desayuno? " (What did you have for breakfast?) teacher Luis Vega asks.

"Desayune mahi-mahi," answers Casey Coss, a Sherman Oaks businessman.

Unusual, but grammatically correct. "Mahi - mahi es muy exotico, " Vega observes.

On various weekend afternoons and weekday nights for the last five months, Vega, a former Berlitz teacher, has turned what is normally a gallery and billiard room into a kind of Cafe Lenguaje. Here, students, assembled based on the similar careers, interests and language level they share, can learn Spanish in a milieu more relaxed and less stultifying than the typical classroom.

Vega, 33, who also works as a translator and a consultant for businesses that have monolingual Latino employees, chose the Cafe Tropical because "I've been a frequent customer and I like the atmosphere. I realized a lot of the customers speak some Spanish and really wanted to learn the language in a more realistic environment." The approach seems to work. Coss has been taking Spanish classes here for 10 weeks. "This concept and this approach really suited my situation," he says. "I own property in Silver Lake, so I'm in this community very often and that's how I learned of the class and the Tropical."

Another draw for many students is the intimate class size. Vega says he tries to keep it down to four students, never more than six. An added homey touch is that the coffee and the Tropical's guayaba con queso pastelillos (guava with cheese pastries) are free.

"It's definitely been the most worthwhile language-learning experience I've ever had," says Liz Pruyn, a marketing director for a bilingual foundation. "I wanted something that would be more casual and more fun than taking classes at UCLA Extension or something like that.

"(Those classes are) not as fun and you don't get the attention, because you're in a huge class full of people. Here it's like it's just him and he corrects you every single time you get something wrong, so it's much more reinforced."

And for those members of the class who are Cafe Tropical regulars, the instruction continues even when the lessons are over. "We come in and get coffee sometimes, separate from the class," Pruyn says. "And the guys at the counter will only speak Spanish to us. (Vega) tells them to."

*

Where: Cafe Tropical, 2900 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake.

Price: $25 for each two-hour class.

When: Times and levels vary. Luis Vega: (213) 644-0137.

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