How to have a fruitful language exchange

Author: Inês Carvalho

Have you ever participated in a language exchange? It can be a lot of fun! It’s all about meeting interesting people from many different countries, speaking different languages and making new friends.

There are many different kinds of language exchange. In some events, there are tables assigned to a specific language, or to language pairs (e.g. English-Portuguese, Spanish-Portuguese), in other cases there are no tables and you choose who you want to interact with. Mundolingo has an interesting system, where participants use flag stickers to show which languages they can speak and which ones they are trying to improve. You can also have your own language exchange with a friend that speaks your target language and whom you help improving in their target language. This article is about language exchange events where you have different physical areas (such as tables) assigned to specific languages, and how to benefit the most of these events in terms of language learning (but there are many other benefits besides the language learning aspect).

SPEAK Language exchange at Casa do Impacto

If you have zero passive knowledge of a language, don’t expect that you will learn a lot at such an event. What I mean is that if you don’t understand anything in that language (let’s say you’re Portuguese and want to learn Japanese from scratch), it’s very unlikely that you will learn more than just a few words at such an event. That’s because most of the participants are not teachers and they don’t know how to “teach” the language from scratch. However, if you don’t speak a language but can understand a little bit (imagine you’re Spanish and don’t know any Portuguese), you might be able to learn a lot because you can understand what people say to some extent and take part in the conversation. My point is not that you should only come to the event if you already speak the language, but rather that you should adjust your expectations. It might still be great to get to know native speakers of your target language, make friends with them and learn a few words – maybe in the future you will be able to speak back to them in their mother tongue! If you’re a beginner taking the first steps in a language, another approach is to be proactive and bring with you a text or some words and ask a native speaker to help you read and pronounce them, or bring some questions/answers that you would like to practice . This way, it will be easier for your language partners to help you out in such an informal context.

Italian notes I took at one of the events

If you’re really focused on improving your language skills, I suggest that you bring a notebook with you to write down new words, “false friends”, and all the corrections you get (or just use your phone to take notes). This implies not only noting down words, but sometimes whole sentences. This is a great way of learning grammar structures. Always check if your spelling is correct after taking notes. At home, look at these words again every now and then, so that they slowly stick to your brain.

Another important aspect is asking your language partners to correct you, and thanking them whenever they do that. If you’re talking a lot and don’t get any corrections, you will intuitively assume that you’re speaking correctly, and the wrong structures and words will be “fossilized” in your brain (“fossilization” is actually a concept in linguistics). Once fossilization occurs, you are more likely to repeat the same mistake over and over again, believing that you’re speaking correctly. It will also be harder to get rid of this mistake in the future.

I believe that the best way of improving is to set times for specific languages, i.e. 15 minutes for Portuguese, 15 minutes for French. People are more likely to speak their target language, while their language partners answer back in their own target language. It also works well, but I still think that it is important to listen to people speaking their mother tongue.

In some kinds of events (at least the ones I organize), arriving early also guarantees better opportunities of being paired up with someone that speaks the language you’re interested in. At the end of the event, don’t forget to ask people for their phone number or Facebook addresses so that you stay in touch!

Finally, let’s not forget one of the most basic rules of language exchange etiquette, which is helping your language partners by also giving them the opportunity to practice their target language with you (assuming that you speak the language they’re trying to learn).

If you live in Lisbon, these are some of the Facebook groups where you can find more information about language exchange events. Have fun!

Language Exchange Lisbon: This group is managed by me. I share here the free events that I organize for SPEAK (usually on Saturdays) and other cultural and language-related events that take place in Lisbon.

SPEAK Lisbon – Language & Culture Exchange: SPEAK has several Language & Culture Exchange events, and not only in Lisbon. I organize some of the Lisbon events, but there are more events organized by other people. They also offer language courses!

MundoLingo Lisbon: There’s a language exchange meetup every Tuesday at Anjos70. You pay €2 the first time you go and then it’s free.

BlaBla Language Exchange: They used to have meetups on Thursdays, but I think that the last ones have been on Wednesdays. You should register beforehand.