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March 10, 2013
Skill Level Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced
Even if you live in a remote area, you can use sites such as ConversationExchange.com to find a Skype partner overseas and start speaking, say, Finnish or Xhosa. The web is a fabulous thing.
Through this language-exchange community, you can (1) set up in-person meetings, (2) enjoy written correspondence, and/or (3) do text/voice chat through your favorite chat software.
I used ConversationExchange.com in 2011 to find a Japanese language partner. I found two, in fact, both very nice. I tried for Italian, but I found someone through Craigslist faster, before people from here started responding to me.
I heard from someone else that ConversationExchange.com was a pick-up place. I didn’t experience that, but if you are looking for social as well as linguistic interactions, why not? Better way to meet people than the local bar, I say!
The language options are unlimited, based on the interests of the participants at any given moment, but if you are in a small town in the middle of the United States, your odds of finding someone also in your small town to speak Hungarian with you may be lower than they are in, say, New York City.
Fortunately, for geographical isolates there is always Skype. I personally do not have an interest in using Skype—nothing like in-person conversation, I say—but I will concede that I am of a particular generation, my preferences are clearly not universal, and besides, I happen to live in New York.
Things to consider in bartering your language assets:
- You may want to reach a certain level of proficiency before you go down the conversation-exchange path. Not everyone feels this way, but if I can say very little, I am generally better off working through more Pimsleur before I sit there slackjawed and stunned into silence by a native speaker. Repeating “hello” and “thank you” too often and grinning foolishly is not fun for me.
- Conversation exchange is not always efficient. If you hire a tutor or just learn on your own, you are focusing 100 percent of your language-learning efforts on your own skills. If you barter, you spend only half of those learning sessions on yourself while the other half will be devoted to the other person. If you are longer on time than money, this can be a good deal; if you have less time than money, then maybe consider paying someone to talk to you.
- Through conversation exchange, you learn things about the language and culture that you just can’t learn on your own.
- If you don’t speak much of the target language and the other person speaks a lot of yours, make sure your sessions don’t tilt towards the language that both of you speak better. If you value conversational subtlety and wit, it is rough to be limited to discussions of weather conditions, what number train to take, whether you’re hungry, and how many brothers, sisters, and children you have. Tough! Make yourself talk in the target language no matter how boring you are.
- Some languages have really wide-ranging dialects. If you can get a partner whose dialect is mainstream or even highbrow, that tends to be more practical in the larger scheme of things. It may be impolitic to say so, but I’m afraid it is true.
- It is also nice, but not critical, for language partners to have some awareness of their native language so they can explain grammatical points to you as they arise.
- Meet in a public place, especially if you are female.
One thing I love about websites such as ConversationExchange.com is that they serve as reminders that language skills have value in the open market! It’s like a special kind of currency you can use to purchase other skills.
I have no particular allegiance to this site, by the way; it just happens to be one that I have used. For other options, you can simply search online on terms like “foreign language conversation exchange” to see what comes up.