I exited Skype and shook my head in amazement. During my English-Spanish conversation hour, my partnerMonica, a woman who teaches high school Spanish in a small Kansas town, had told me that not only had she grown up with nine brothers, but she also had two other sisters who had died in infancy.
“My family of five children was large and sometimes competitive,” I replied. “But I can’t imagine nine Brothers and Sisters.”
Family size is just one topic Monica and I have discussed in the 6 weeks we’ve been chatting on Skype. We’ve also talked about 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 other people around the world to practice a language. It’s easy: you create a profile, indicating which is your native language and in which language you want to practice, and at what level. You can also put filters, such as age and gender. And if you prefer to text back and forth instead of chatting, you can filter by “pen pal.”
Fun and free friendships through ‘Exchanges’
After posting my profile, I received an offer from a 30-something from Buenos Aires whose accent I expected to be difficult (Argentine Spanish, like Chile’s, is markedly different from the rest of South America), but I found it. easy to understand. Arturo, who lives with his parents and works as a supermarket clerk, was always ready with questions. For example, he asked me why there was a Humboldt Redwoods State Park Y a Redwoods National and State Park. Wasn’t this confusing?
Really! When I complimented him on how much he knew about my area, he said that 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 the others mates, and Arturo also talked to a guy from Birmingham, England. Birmingham? Barry, my British husband, he said, imitating a thick accent. “No one can understand a word they say!”
After I left for England in the fall, Arturo and I agreed to move on to other partners. When I came back, I started a new exchange (exchange) with a divorced guy from Costa Rica. After a few weeks, I got frustrated that he sometimes mis-explained himself (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 that not everyone fits, so now with new partners I suggest that try out (try) a session before committing.
After Arturo, I had a partner from Arequipa, a beautiful city in southern Peru that Barry and I visited in the 1980s. Estela is a single woman in her 50s who lives with her mom and sister, a custom I have never seen in the US .but that is still common in some Latin countries. She is quite a virtuoso of languages: she not only teaches Spanish, she has taught French through the French Alliance and also speaks Italian and German.
He teaches 6 days a week, a lifestyle that seems workaholic to me, but seems happy enough. She was curious why neither she nor her sister were married. In the early stages of our relationship, I felt like it was too early to ask and then we stopped seeing each other because she was too busy.
Meanwhile, I was approached by a somewhat nerdy but funny 32-year-old data analyst from Monterrey, Mexico, another buddy who speaks excellent English. With Iván, I wasn’t sure how much we would have in common, so I sent him a list of topics that interested me, including hobbies, family, Mexican attitudes toward Spain, cooking, our favorite foods, exercise, college experiences, stress, travel. and the friendship. But we have had so many other things to talk about that we have just come to the relationship between Mexico and Spain.
learning from my mistakes
Often when I make a mistake, Ivan looks deeply hurt and scrunches up his face in a way that makes me laugh. I make fun of him for that. I made a stupid mistake, saying “Much better?” (“very better”), and he replied: “Never! He is very ugly! ” (meaning: “Never! Very bad!”)
One day I was surprised when, after mentioning a robbery on his street, he used the phrase “those motherf*****s”. I was surprised, not because I felt critical of him for swearing, but because it sounded so completely natural.
Iván teaches me a lot about Mexican Spanish, such as the existence of gender identity markers. Whereas before people only said everyone (for “everyone”, in the masculine form), or all (feminine), now you also have all (gender neutral). All this was very new to me. I had no idea.
Friends around the world
Monica my partner from Spain, is the partner I feel closest to. We have so much to say to each other, now we talk twice a week. Like me, he talks so fast it’s hard to insert a correction, though he’s always grateful when I do. He told me he couldn’t believe there were 15 churches of different denominations in Sabetha, the small town of 2,500 where he teaches in Kansas. I explained that many parts of the rural Midwest are deeply religious and conservative. She was also struck by the restrictive abortion laws in Kansas and neighboring states, unlike Spain, which, despite being a Catholic country, legalized abortion in 2010. “For me,” she said one morning, “the United States is like a movie set. cinema”. I laughed because that’s exactly what my Dutch friends and my husband Barry said.
Monica and I are very open with each other. Yesterday, for example, she was crying, worried about her elderly mother’s sense of isolation, along with her own problems in renewing her visa. I made a big gesture hug (hug) her from 2,000 miles away in California.
Since last summer, when I created my profile, I have had five interlocutors and my exchanges They have become one of my favorite weekly routines. Not only do I practice Spanish, but I also 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 tips for getting the most out of a conversation exchange session:
- Try to be more or less at the same fluency level as your partner.
- Decide the format and duration. Usually it is 20-30 minutes in each language.
- If you get stuck, make a list of topics, like I did, or use the questions offered on the website, like, Have you ever appeared on television? sung in public? Riding a horse? Did you try an extreme sport? Broken a bone? Did you meet a celebrity? Did you sleep in a tent?
- Decide which time zones you feel comfortable with. Not everyone can stay awake during a 5am conversation with someone on the other side of the world!
- Keep a notebook, pen, translation app, and water nearby.
That’s it. Easy! And if you’re anything like me, you’ll look forward to every chat (chat) all week, and savor it long after.
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