In Praise of (Online) Language Exchanges

Language exchanges are the reason that I speak Portuguese today. If I hadn’t started my language exchanges back in March 2020, I wouldn’t speak a word of Portuguese, I wouldn’t have met the most amazing people who live on the other side of the world from me, I wouldn’t have written an e-book, and this website wouldn’t exist. At the time of writing this blog, I’ve still not met a Brazilian native face-to-face (well, or anyone, actually, we’re STILL in quarantine!).

 

When I was growing up, I saw language learning as something that happens in one of two ways. Either, you use textbooks, get a teacher, and study a lot, or you move to the country and learn by immersion.

 

I started learning Portuguese just before the UK went into full lockdown in 2020. Immersion was out of the question. Or was it?

 

Language exchanges were a game-changer for me.

 

You’re a partnership

Online language exchanges are about so much more than having small talk with strangers. They’re about not feeling alone on your language learning journey. My language exchange partners have never felt like “a language learning resource”. They’re friends. They are my biggest allies in language learning. They are the ones I celebrate with, try out new words with, laugh over terrible pronunciation with.  

 

You have an army of accountability buddies

Accountability buddies are the real secret weapon in making sure that you stay motivated in learning your language. It’s someone to check in with once a week to discuss your strategies, talk about what’s going well or going badly, find solutions together, and celebrate each other’s successes. The thing with language exchange partners is, they empower you to do better. It also ensures that you actually do the studying or the preparations, because you really don’t want to let your partner down!

 

You’re speaking the real language

If you want to know how real people speak, on a daily basis, nothing beats speaking to native speakers. Want to know what the youth are saying? Want to know what the best insults are? Want to use text speak like a pro? A language exchange partner could help you with that!

 

People assume that immersion just means that the language happens around you. But they’re invariably disappointed to learn that they don’t just learn the language by osmosis when they arrive. How many people do you know who’ve moved abroad, got a job working in their native language, settled down in the expat community, and still struggle with the basics of the language five years later?  The thing about immersion is, even if you’re living in the country, you have to seek it out. Language exchanges give you a way to do that, whether you’re in the country or you’re on the other side of the world.

 

As an aside, speaking to a range of language partners gives you the opportunity to hear a range of local accents and regional dialects. A lot can change between different cities!

 

There’s no shame

When I learned languages in a school setting, I found that speaking was a constant battle with perfectionism. For me, having the teacher-student hierarchy meant that I felt permanently embarrassed by my own level and my own knowledge, and constantly apologetic. It didn’t matter how jovial or encouraging the teacher was, because they were ten or more years ahead of me, because our whole relationship was tied up in end-of-year grades, because they were the expert, and I was… well… not.

 

In language exchanges, it is a completely different atmosphere. You’re both learning. You both have something to contribute, just by nature of being yourselves and living in your respective countries. It’s a two-way street. There is no shame. You both make mistakes, neither of you knows the word for “gemstone” so you both look it up, and you both commiserate together at the pain of learning SO MANY TENSES. You grow, and they grow, and you feel proud of both of you.

 

 

Where do I start?

I use a mix of Tandem and Instagram to find language exchange partners, but there are plenty of other apps available such as HelloTalk, Speaky, MyLanguageExchange. I work with some of my regular partners once a week, some twice a week, and some every day. I speak to a maximum of one or two new people per week. Try a few apps and see which ones work for you! And don’t forget to join language learning communities on all your normal social networks too – plenty of people there are looking for exchanges!

 

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