Language exchanges have been a core part of my language learning strategy since the very beginning. Sitting down with a real person and practising a new language over a coffee (or something stronger) is one of my favourite things in life.
That's why I welcome this guest post today from Santiago Montero, founder and director of Spanish Tutor DC. Santiago has spent more than 15 years integrating the fields of education and mass media in Europe and Latin America, and offers us an interesting discussion comparing language exchanges with more traditional study methods.
Is drinking with new friends the best language learning solution?
Peer-to-peer websites like MeetUp are connecting those who want to learn a language with those who can already speak it in cafes and bars across the country.
Are people really able to improve their language skills this way, or is there more drinking than learning taking place?
Whether it’s Italian coffee or Spanish beer, there’s something special about drinking with a new companion that seems to perfectly compliment language learning.
Thanks to the internet and peer-to-peer websites specifically, people who were previously unable, or unlikely, to meet foreign language speakers, now have plenty of chances to meet international drinking partners with similar language learning goals.
What advantages do informal language exchanges have over traditional methods?
Connecting language students with one another allows learners to listen to their target language as it sounds when coming from a real-life native speaker. This is a significant advantage that face-to-face methods have over their competitors, such as Rosetta Stone and Duolingo.
The learner has a fantastic opportunity to engage in real dialogue, complete with false starts, regional accents and the misunderstandings that happen in everyday situations. Not to mention the fact that liquid stimulants, both caffeine and alcohol, are excellent for getting a conversation flowing!
Meeting up also gives learners the chance to form relationships with one another and whilst a romantic partner can be an excellent teacher, a new friend can be just as educational. Simply knowing someone that you want to communicate with in a foreign language can give you both motivation and satisfaction, two of the most effective language learning tools out there.
Another advantage is that this kind language exchange gives you more personal attention than you would get from an off-the-shelf textbook and you can easily tailor your meetings to suit one another’s individual needs.
Are language exchanges an effective way to learn another tongue?
While these kind of exchanges are certainly both useful and enjoyable, the question remains as to how effective they are when compared to learning from a qualified tutor. If two hard-working people met for a coffee and language exchange on a regular basis, you would likely find them able to hold simple conversations in both languages in the course of just a few months. However, it might be a very long time before they could pass any sort of rigorous exam needed for overseas work and study.
In my experience, it seems that the strengths of meeting up to learn languages can also turn out to be weaknesses. With so many learners out there to meet up with, it can be hard to find the one that is right for your particular needs and unlike a teacher you can’t politely ask them to rethink their approach!
The informality which makes speaking easier can sometimes lead to a fragmented understanding of a new language, and the lack of structure that makes this kind of meetup exciting can result in slow progress if you find yourself discussing the same few comfortable topics each week.
Is it possible to learn a language by drinking with new friends? Absolutely, but face-to-face meet ups in an informal setting should be just one of many options at your disposal if you are truly serious about reaching fluency. Regular classes with a professional teacher are irreplaceable and if you can further expand your studies by immersing yourself in foreign music, literature, textbooks and language learning apps, then that would be ideal!
How to find your language exchange…
If you are interested in meeting up for drinking and languages with some new friends, there are a number of free websites that are great places to get started.
Originally designed as a platform for helping travellers find a (free) room for the night whilst they are travelling in a new place, the friendly and intensely international couchsurfing community is a great place to practice your language skills. You can either attend the Couchsurfing ‘meetings,’ which take place in bars in every major city or you can use their forums to find someone for a one-to-one language exchange.
In any ‘international’ city you’ll find MeetUp groups dedicated to learning the most popular languages, usually with a good mix of learners and native
speakers. If you don’t spot the group you are looking for, why not start your own?
Don’t live in a big city? These days you can learn a language from your living room through Skype. Though it’s not the same as face-to-face conversation, it can be a good place to get started if you are stuck out in the sticks.
You can find anything in the world on a site like Craigslist and a language exchange partner is no
exception. Use your common sense and take some basic safety precautions when meeting someone in person for the first time.
The Old Fashioned Way…
If you are feeling retro-cool, then why not stick your name and phone number up in a window somewhere? Each town usually has an international bar or restaurant of some description; English schools are another good location, full of people eager to start practising!
Cheers and Salud!
Thanks Santiago! If you're learning Spanish, and especially if you live in Washington DC, be sure to check out Santiago's website at SpanishTutorDC.