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Sunday, May 5, 2013 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

Travel Wise / Language-learning made fun, and cheap, for Seattle travelers

By Carol Pucci
Special to The Seattle Times

Just about the time the Queen Anne bars and restaurants are filling up for Friday afternoon happy hour, eight of us are gathered around a table at Starbucks, sipping lattes and chatting in Italian.

Full disclosure: I’m speaking mostly in English as I gather bits of information about the Seattle Italian Connection, a “meetup” group that brings strangers together over coffee, wine or lunch to practice their language skills. Like many, it’s organized through meetup.com, a networking website for community groups (including dozens in the Seattle area).

Everyone has a different reason for being here: Allison Cordrey, the assistant organizer of the Seattle Italian Connection, returned from a trip to Italy a few years ago determined to learn Italian but unable to afford formal classes. Others, such as a Seattle glass artist who lived in Venice, are fluent and want to keep practicing. I need to brush up on the basics of ordering pizza and haggling with cabdrivers before a trip to Naples.

Whether it’s memorizing a few words and phrases in Thai or Japanese or striving to become semi-conversational in Italian or Spanish, making the effort to learn a bit of the local language before traveling always pays off, either in the spirit of general friendliness or outright necessity.

We’re lucky in the Seattle area to have community colleges and private language schools that offer excellent classes. But for those looking for less of a commitment in time or money, there are other ways for travelers to practice and learn.

Local meetups

Go online to meetup.com, type “languages’’ in the search box and find local conversation and cultural groups meeting regularly (and for free) to practice French, Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, even Hindi or Korean.

Look for a group that gears its meetings to your level, whether beginner or advanced.

The Tacoma Spanish Club (meetup.com/Tacoma-Spanish-Club), for instance, advertises itself as “mainly for advanced, nearly fluent and native Spanish speakers.’’ It has a no-speaking English rule with the understanding that “the only way to get better at Spanish is to keep speaking it.’’

The Seattle French conversation Meetup (meetup.com/french-587/) , welcomes beginners through advanced-level speakers at regular meetings in Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Ballard, Greenwood and other neighborhoods around Seattle.

The Seattle Italian Connection (meetup.com/italian-seattle) is organized by Lega Italiana, an international association on Italian language and culture, with 4,000 members worldwide and around 600 in the Seattle area.

Meetup groups are casual and loosely organized. Members tend to exchange first names and gather at public places such as coffee shops, bakeries, wine bars and restaurants.

Starter classes

A bargain at $85 for five weeks are upcoming two-hour Thursday evening classes in German and Italian at the Savvy Traveler store in Edmonds.

Taught by native speakers, the classes focus on travel basics such as how to order in a restaurant, ask for directions, handle money etc. Register at savvytraveleredmonds.com.

Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door, also in Edmonds, regularly offers free, one to 1.5-hour classes in beginning German, Italian, French and Turkish for travelers. Sign up at ricksteves.com.

The Traveler store in Winslow on Bainbridge Island continues this summer and fall with four-session, one-hour classes in French, Greek, Arabic, Italian and Spanish ($75). Register at thetraveler.com.

Weekend retreats

Join a guest teacher from the University of Washington for an immersion weekend that includes six hours of French or Italian language instruction per day, plus a lesson in home cooking at the Northwest Language & Cultural Center on Whidbey Island.

“Our programs immerse people in the language through activities. It’s about practicing the language, developing language skills and learning more about the culture,’’ says founder and director Josette Hendrix. Born in Bulgaria into a French household, she went to school in Rome before moving to the United States and learning English.

The weekend programs are $185. Lodging (extra) can be arranged at the center in the former Ashingdon Manor Country Inn in Langley. See nwlanguageacademy.com.

Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at travel@carolpucci.com. Web/blog: www.carolpucci.com. Twitter: @carolpucci.