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The Language Exchange

Yesterday or more precisely, last night, I attended another one of those English and Spanish language exchanges. Here in Madrid they are called; ‘Intercambios’.

Last night was OK, I seem to be settling into the routine and environment of the particular Intercambio I attend. I have made a few friends actually, but the reason I initially began attending Intercambios wasn’t really to make friends.

The idea behind these language exchanges are that people who wish to learn English or Spanish can meet at these organised events, and then together they can work to improve their language skills.

In Madrid Intercambios are popular. For me it has been a huge shock discovering just how popular. Many people here are eager to perfect their English – which they will tell you is bad, and yet it isn’t! They speak very good English, which again shocked me, as you rarely hear them doing so, even if you ask them.

People here actually learn English via work or from school, well, the younger generations learn in school. Courses and classes here can be expensive, so people flood to these Intercambios hoping to practice and speak English for free. So, I held out hope to also be able to chat away in my ‘Spanglish’, or gain the much needed confidence to actually speak Spanish as well as I do when no-one is listening to me!!

Having spent a significant time dedicated to attempting to learn Spanish, and also time slacking off from this task; I came to think, in my infinite wisdom, that Intercambio (language exchange) evenings would be the way to achieve language perfection.

Oh dear, how misled were my judgements on such things.

The main issue for me is that Intercambios are 99.9% of the time run from a bar/club, where loud music can hinder understanding, and also people tend to enjoy drinking alcohol, more than perhaps actually learning anything. I for one am guilty of this!

OK, alcohol plays a huge part in lowering inhibitions and boosting confidence, but also after a couple of drinks retaining any new information, in relation to learning, well, it isn’t so conducive.

Have I learnt anything so far from attending them?? Well a couple of words, but not substantial conversation or fantastical language confidence!

In fact even finding an Intercambio set up I was comfortable with at first, was trial and error.

My first experience with Intercambios was actually as I expected it would be, surprisingly. Bar, alcohol,
men and women = well, a hunting ground for sex. Not really my idea of learning a language!

This first Intercambio, 3 friends and myself  attended together. As soon as us women entered the bar (which was full of men), immediately I detected their eyes fix upon us, and I just knew why! Their necks were all strained like Meerkats on the lookout!! They weren’t interested in run of the mill conversation, let me just say that!

Anyway, intimidating, yes, very; we were not there to meet men for sex.

So, my judgement of Intercambios had been tainted; I felt it was really a euphemism for a ‘pick up’ opportunity, rather than a legitimate language exchange or learning experience.

Anyway, not being one to give up, I decided to persevere and give the Intercambios another shot.

The second Intercambio I attended, although the setting remained within a bar, I didn’t get a ‘pick up’ joint vibe. So, it seemed as though this one might just provide me an opportunity to learn, and practice Spanish.

This was the theory, but it has never quite transpired to practice.

Reason being is when a friend and I checked into this particular Intercambio, we looked at the attendee register, and immediately noticed everyone there was Spanish. 98% of them wanted to learn English!!!! Us two, being the only fluent English speakers present – damn!

Seems as though we would be the free English tutors for the evening – and that thought unnerved me.

As soon as the people present heard our accents, all eyes were trained upon us! They turned eagerly, desperate to get the opportunity to talk to us about anything, so long as they could speak to us in English. It was once again an intimidating situation, but for very different reasons than the first Intercambio disaster. We were again centre of attention without even wanting to be! I then thought, thank God I have never been famous, I’d never have coped with all that attention!

I was a little freaked out to say the least; put on the spot and I almost felt like a cabaret act – like I should do a little dance or something! I felt myself squirm inwardly as we were paraded about the bar, and then introduced to about 10 strangers. We were expected then to get on with our tuition of these Spanish strangers! It was weird!

Consequently I could only speak in English for the first hour, and then only a little Spanish thereafter. I was on edge all night – I felt so nervous of all the attention and questioning. Though, they were nice people, it was still a full on experience and not one I am usually used to; speaking on demand like a pet! I wasn’t a happy bunny!

This way of learning is not for me, I cannot learn like this. I need to feel comfortable to speak to a person in a foreign language – I don’t know why. I struggle, I feel my mind goes blank. Plus, how often do we trade information, that is perhaps personal, with complete strangers? Not often. It is quite an unnatural setting.

A Spanish friend of mine actually described the Intercambios as a form of speed dating, and they could be. It is like repeating yourself, and making good impressions, being on your best behaviour, and hiding your true self to score points! I have never been part of a speed dating event, but I imagine people must feel the same – on show, on the spot and feel they are being assessed and judged even!

It is a weird environment for sure, and one I just feel I am not comfortable in, yet every week I still attend, like a glutton for punishment! As I have already stated though I have met some nice people, so this is a good thing, yet, I am not really fulfilling my main aim – to learn Spanish!

Yet, at least I am making friends. So, there is still hope to eventually be fluent in Spanish, one day!

25 thoughts on “The Language Exchange

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  2. An interesting viewpoint of the whole intercambio meet up experience. When I lived in Spain I used to go to these too, but in Valencia, which perhaps being a smaller city meant that you’d speak with more of the same people every week. One of the big challenges I found was finding people that you get on with and who have patience for your mistakes.

    • Hi, thanks for your input on this topic. I appreciate hearing others experiences. Yes,and also feeling comfortable to speak to complete strangers about ‘personal’ things; work and family. The people seem OK, but as it is once a week for a few hours it isn’t really enough to feel immersed into a new language. I will keep ploughing away though!!!
      Thanks again, Bex

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  4. Senorita, interesting post! Spanish is my first language, so it is easy for me to speak it, but I imagine it might be difficult for others to learn it. I applaud you for learning it. I am amazed when I meet anglo speaking people here in the US wanting to and actually learning to fluently speak another language like Spanish. Keep it up!

    • Thank you for your comments! Thank you also for your good wishes for me and my learning endeavours. I appreciate it 🙂
      Well, it is important to at least try, which I am. I think maybe other people might not need to learn, but living in Madrid, I need to 🙂
      Thanks again.

  5. Kudos to you for learning a new language. I’ve only had one year of high school Spanish. My wife spent 6 months in Costa Rica with her sister and they can speak it pretty well. Good luck with this endeavor

  6. Just a thought but if confidence, or lack thereof, seems to be an issue maybe asking one of the people you’ve befriended that you feel comfortable with to work with you one on one might be more helpful. I studied Spanish for three straight years and practiced everyday with a few coworkers who were fluent and I still struggled to become proficient enough to speak with confidence to strangers. It sounds to me like you have a very good grasp on the language, it’s the lack of confidence that’s preventing you from sharpening your skills. Maybe these intercambios are a good way to improve because, while not ideally what you were thinking, they force you to practice with strangers which will hopefully improve your confidence first and then allow you to improve your skills!

    • Hi, thanks for your advice on this, and sharing your own learning experience. Thanks, I do have fairly a good grasp, and I do try to regularly meet up with Spanish friends, but I feel it isn’t enough. Daily, I don’t use it enough, which is bad on my part, yet working from home tends to ‘isolate’ me from language saturation. As you have stated, even learning everyday can take time, so I will keep going with the intercambios to push myself. I certainly hope these will benefit me, as you have stated too. I keep my hopes up anyway!
      Thanks you again, I appreciate it.
      Bex 🙂

      • You are most welcome, it was my pleasure! I wish you the best of luck as you endeavor to improve. I myself have let my skills become very rusty because lately I almost never interact with any native Spanish speakers. As I was reading your article I couldnt help but wonder why I have never seen or heard of these types of groups here in the US. With so many spanish speaking people living all over the US you would think these intercambios would be very popular and extremely helpful for the English speakers as well as the Spanish speakers.

        • That is kind of you. Yes, I need all the luck I can get too!! I would have thought they might have a form of intercambio meetings, but perhaps it is a Madrid thing only. Yes, that can happen – it does to me as I work from home. When I’m out it is the case of the crazy lady trying to get in as many random words in as possible!
          Thanks again, Bex

          • I think that the desire and need to learn another language, especially enlish, is much more prevalent in European countries than here in the US. The typical American attitude about learning other languages is probably a big reason why groups like that are not very prevalent here.
            I guess working from home really does limit you to the amount of exposure you get to Spanish so that when you go out you’re a bit starved for it! I highly doubt people think you are crazy though haha!

          • Ah, I always thought people were more into learning languages in the US, especially Spanish. I am surprised.

            Yes, I am!!! Today I have really immersed myself though – I had a Zumba class, and met friends for lunch and a catch up. So, today has been a good Spanish language day 😀

            Well, I hope not, but then being a little crazy is a good thing (I think)!!!

          • Sadly many people in the US have an arrogant attitude and therefore assume the rest of the world should learn English and not the other way around. That being said I believe, with so many people from other countries making a home here in the US, that attitude is changing albeit slowly!

            I don’t think you are crazy it sounds like you just have a passion for life. If having a passion for life is crazy then I am completely insane haha!

  7. Well, with the friends you are making there, do you converse in Spanish in other ways?

    It seems kind of fun actually, but if it feels uncomfortable then it is probably good for you, like healthy food 😀

    • Oh, I do, but not regularly enough. I enjoy conversation, and in Spanish my expressional skills are limited, therefore I automatically revert to English to get my point across! I love to communicate, and always feel so stunted when I try in Spanish, and then loose my thread by stumbling on words! It is also confidence with me, at home I have no issue, but once I become a little nervous or uncomfortable I feel my brain locking me out of all the Spanish I have learnt!!!!!!! It is such a weird thing, as in English I never have problems chatting away!
      Yes, that is true. I always try to push myself to do new things, even if they scare the hell out of me 😀

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