What It’s Like to Go to a Language Exchange in Europe
Reflecting back now among the Covid-19 pandemic, it is hard to imagine the challenge I made for myself back in 2019 to become semi-fluent in Spanish in a brand new city. Last year I decided to do the Auxiliary program in Madrid, Spain. I knew that learning the local language was key to making my new environment feel like home. While trying to get settled, I found an amazing opportunity to learn in a different way: Attending intercambios. Although it is hard to picture being able to hop around a city and mingle with people in bars and parks now, it was a great experience that allowed me to discover aspects about my own language learning.
How does a newly designated madrileño make connections and learn Spanish? Become aware of the many intercambios in the area. All you have to do is choose one from a bounty of organizations and sign up. They took place in parks, night clubs, cafes and bars. Here is how my very first intercambio worked, and what I learned from it.
How to prepare/ How I prepared
I was nervous, I was about to meet a bunch of new people, and I knew my language skills were where I wanted them to be. I chose the group solely based on word of mouth, so I was not sure if it would be right for me. Also I was having a bit of trouble finding the spot in the park where the event was being held. I brushed up on some words and vocabulary I wanted to use, preparing some questions in my head beforehand. I also spent some time on google maps figuring out how to get there.
I finally made it to the park, and I was not 100% sure that the group of people on the grass were the ones I was looking for, but they were! They had divided themselves into three groups: People who wanted to practice French, Spanish and English. I told the coordinator my level and they recommended I sit with the Spanish speakers, so if they wanted they could also practice English. I really appreciated the coordinator monitoring what each group wanted. Some people had brought snacks to share, which set a good tone!
The biggest challenge for me was understanding the Madrid accent. In the capital, they speak pretty quickly, even by Spanish standards. These exchanges were not supposed to be like a class, no one would stop to thoroughly explain a grammar rule or colloquialism that I didn’t understand. At first, we went around in a circle introducing ourselves, but we jumped around in what we wanted to practice. I struggled to keep up, but it was great experience. I think my favorite aspect of intercambios is that you meet a huge variety of people. You not only meet locals or newcomers, but you also meet people of different ages. I took some numbers down because these events are also a great way to network and make potential friends. It also feels pretty natural. Meeting strangers is a bit awkward, but you all came to dedicate time to practice a new language and enjoy some of the city’s best features.
Overall, this was a great experience to dip my toes into speaking Spanish without experiencing culture shock. It was very challenging, but I gained confidence in my skills. Unlike a classroom, no one pauses to correct you (if they do so, its usually politely), and there are no grades or tests. Also it feels more fun, because usually intercambios provide an activity that you would want to be doing on your own. Personally, I had already wanted to check out the local bars, attend trivia nights or karaoke, or touring the park. This way I grew from the experience.