When ifriends opened in a former bar in Shinchon, customers could have taken it for just another coffee place that this college area in Seoul is saturated with.
As it hits two o’clock, groups of fours and fives populate a dozen tables to practice foreign languages in a relaxed environment.
Girls looking for jobs with airlines conduct mock interviews in English. Office workers seeking to enhance conversational Chinese chat for hours in Mandarin. Most common of all, college kids looking to raise their English proficiency test marks brush up their comprehension with hand-out materials prepared by the group leader.
There is one condition ― no Korean inside the cafe.
Since opening in 2008, ifriends has blossomed into a cafe, a banquet hall, a classroom and most of all, a foreign language immersion center.
The goal, says co-owner Sohn Ju-youn, is to offer a comfortable place to chat in foreign languages.
“People feel uncomfortable practicing their English in other cafes when there are so many of us who want to speak English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, you name it, to get jobs and perform better at work,” the former office worker said.
“A lot of the first comers become regular members once they are placed into a particular group. They come here to talk, so people socialize easily and hang out for drinks afterwards.”
Crowds help themselves to unlimited amounts of coffee and tea from an espresso bar for an entrance fee of 5,000 won ($4.40). The cafe does not charge customers for organizing study groups or conversational sessions where a native speaker is hired to lead the group.
“On Wednesdays we have a job hunting group where members share recruitment information and practice answering interview questions in English. It feels great when some of them come back for a party after they get an offer,” Sohn said.
The study groups, running seven days a week, ranges from TOEIC-speaking, translation sessions to advanced Japanese. The cafe gives small incentives to leaders who volunteer to head their group.
Moon Hyung-chul, 27, says his participation in the job hunting group for the past three months helped him to ace a corporate job interview where he received an offer.
“I did my undergraduate (degree) at an Australian university so I was quite confident with English to start with. But discussing current affairs with people like me on a regular basis polished my speaking,” Moon said.