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I got off Skype and shook my head in amazement. During my English-Spanish conversation hour, my compañera, Monica, a woman who teaches high school Spanish in a small town in Kansas, had told me how not only had she grown up with nine siblings, but she also had two other sisters who had died in childhood.
“My family of five kids was large and sometimes competitive,” I replied. “But I can’t imagine nine brothers and sisters.”
Family size is just one subject Monica and I have discussed in the 6 weeks we’ve been chatting on Skype. We’ve also discussed the Afghan refugees she used to teach in Spain, her weekend trip to Chicago, and our respective family members.
These are the meaningful conversations I’m having, thanks to a free website called Conversation Exchange, where people chat with others around the world in order to practice a language. It’s easy: You create a profile, stating what your native language is and what language you want to practice in, and at what level. You can also put in filters, such as age and gender. And if you’d rather write back and forth than chat, you can filter for “penpal.”
Fun, Free Friendships Through ‘Intercambios’
After I posted my profile, I received an offer from a 30-something guy from Buenos Aires whose accent I expected to be difficult (Argentinian Spanish, like that of Chile, is markedly different from the rest of South America), but I found him easy to understand. Arturo, who lives with his parents and works as a supermarket clerk, was always prepared with questions. For example, he asked me why there was both a Humboldt Redwoods State Park and a Redwoods National and State Park. Wasn’t this confusing?
No kidding! When I complimented him on how much he knew about my area, he said he did careful research before our weekly session because he was shy, and wouldn’t know what to say otherwise.
I always enjoy hearing about my partners’ other compañeros, and Arturo also spoke with a guy from Birmingham, England. “Birmingham?” Barry, my British husband, said, mimicking a dense accent. “No one can understand a word they say!”
After I went to England in the fall, Arturo and I agreed to move on to other partners. When I got back, I started a new intercambio (exchange) with a divorced guy from Costa Rica. After a few weeks, I felt frustrated because at times he mansplained (even after I explained the term to him!), and seemed more interested in Barry’s career than mine. The nerve! One thing I’ve learned in the last 6 months is not everyone is a fit, so now, with new partners, I suggest we probar (try) a session before committing.
After Arturo, I had a compañera from Arequipa, a beautiful city in southern Peru that Barry and I visited in the 80s. Estela is a single woman in her 50s who lives with her mom and sister, a custom I’ve never seen in the U.S. but that is still common in some Latin countries. She’s quite a language virtuoso: Not only does she teach Spanish — she has taught French through the Alliance Française and also speaks Italian and German.
She teaches 6 days a week, a lifestyle that sounds workaholic to me, but she seems happy enough. I was curious why neither she nor her sister were married. In the early stages of our relationship, I felt it was too early to ask, and then we stopped meeting because she was too busy.
Meanwhile, I was approached by a somewhat nerdy but amusing 32-year-old data analyst from Monterrey, Mexico, another compañero who speaks excellent English. With Ivan, I wasn’t sure how much we’d have in common, so I sent him a list of themes that interested me, including hobbies, family, Mexican attitudes toward Spain, cooking, our favorite foods, exercise, university experiences, stress, travel, and friendship. But we’ve had so many other things to talk about that we’ve only just gotten to the relationship between Mexico and Spain.
Learning From My Mistakes
Often when I make a mistake, Ivan looks deeply pained and contorts his face in a way that makes me laugh. I tease him about it. I made a stupid mistake, saying “muy mejor?” (“very better”), and he responded, “Nunca! Es muy feo!” (meaning, “Never! Way wrong!”)
One day I was surprised when, after mentioning a robbery on his street, he used the English phrase “those motherf*****s.” I was surprised, not because I felt critical of him for swearing, but because he sounded so completely natural.
Ivan teaches me a lot about Mexican Spanish, like the existence of gender identity markers. Whereas before people only said todos (for “all,” in the masculine form), or todas (feminine), now you also have todes (gender-neutral). All this was very new to me. I had no idea.
Friendships Around The World
Monica, my compañera from Spain, is the partner I feel closest to. We have so much to say to each other, we now talk twice a week. Like me, she’s such a rapid-fire talker that it’s hard to interject a correction, though she always appreciates it when I do. She told me she couldn’t believe that there were 15 churches of different denominations in Sabetha, the tiny town of 2,500 where she teaches in Kansas. I explained that many parts of the rural Midwest are deeply religious and conservative. She was also shocked by the restrictive abortion laws in Kansas and nearby states, unlike Spain, which despite being a Catholic country made abortion legal in 2010. “For me,” she said one morning, “America is like a film set.” I burst out laughing because that’s exactly what my husband Barry’s and my Dutch friends said.
Monica and I are very open with each other. Yesterday, for example, she was in tears, worrying about her elderly mom’s sense of isolation, coupled with her own problems getting her visa renewed. I gestured a big abrazo (hug) to her from 2,000 miles away in California.
Since last summer, when I created my profile, I’ve had five conversation partners, and my intercambios have become one of my favorite weekly routines. Not only do I practice Spanish, but I also get to make friends and learn about other cultures. And as the website says, “there’s no cost or homework involved and it’s fun.”
Here are five suggestions to get the most out of a Conversation Exchange session:
- Aim to be more or less at the same fluency level as your partner.
- Decide on your format and length of time. Usually, it’s 20-30 minutes in each language.
- If you get stuck, make a list of themes, as I did, or use the questions offered on the website, like, Have you ever been on TV? Sung in public? Ridden a horse? Tried an extreme sport? Broken a bone? Met a celebrity? Slept in a tent?
- Decide which time zones you’re comfortable using. Not everyone can stay awake during a 5 a.m. chat with someone on the other side of the world!
- Keep a notebook, pen, translation app, and water nearby.
That’s it. Simple! And if you’re at all like me, you’ll be looking forward to each charla (chat) all week, and savoring it long after.
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