I am about to impart to you my secret weapon as equal part city-dweller, language learner and frequent traveler. Use it and your life won’t be the same. No, I’m not kidding and I’m not even exaggerating– I now live in Madrid. When I found this site, I lived quite happily in Chicago. But one of my intercambio partners who had moved backed to Madrid tipped me off to a job and you know how the rest goes…
In my opinion, it truly is one of the hidden gems of the internet. Sure, it looks a little dodgy, but with care to “selectively respond,” I have been fortunate enough to meet some truly incredible people. The caveat, of course, is that it requires a minimum of conversational second (or third or fourth) language skills.
Intercambios, as they’re called in Spanish, function on the basic premise that good people still exist in the world. It’s two people who recognize each is inherently equipped with a skill the other is hoping to obtain. In recognizing the asset of this skill, in this case being a native speaker of a language, both offer conversations in their native languages in exchange for conversations in their learning/learned language. To this end, the entire thing is really at no cost to self– save the 1.30€ you pay for the cafe con leche. I simply list my native language (English) and the language I wish to practice (Spanish). I then find a person who is the converse of me: a native Spanish speaker wishing to practice English. It really is as simple as that. I would say within 30 minutes of posting my profile I started receiving emails. There are some days I will receive as many as 20 or 25 inquiries for an exchange, all from native speakers, many native madrileños who are offering to teach me everything they know about the city completely free of cost if only I will talk to them for an hour or so.
Sometimes- okay, all the time- it is a little nerve-wracking to meet the person and figure out if you have anything in common, not to mention potentially making a complete fool of yourself in front of a complete stranger. Sure, there is that part of it. In spite of this, my utilitarian side always leaves satisfied because I’m conversing in my second language with a native speaker, and my softer humanistic side is thrilled because I’m meeting people whose paths I likely would not have crossed otherwise. I have to remind myself of this as I’m internally battling walking up to the person I’m pretty sure is who I am supposed to meet and abruptly asking them, “Hi, are you so and so?” I also remind myself that they are just as nervous as I am! They’re also wondering if I’m a creep; they’re also going over questions in their head in case we were to find we have absolutely nothing to talk about; they’re also wondering if I’m going to show. For the record, I have never had a person stand me up and in three or four years of regularly using this site, I’ve only ever had one exchange where it was awkward due to lack of common interest. On the contrary, I would readily classify the people I have met as friends if not good friends.
Of course there’s the obvious stuff about using common sense when you first meet the person such as meeting somewhere really public, don’t give specifics about where you live when you’re emailing to set up your first meeting, etc., etc., but that simply comes with the territory. Intercambios, for me, are a way to ensure I get out into whatever city I’m living in and don’t hole away like a hermit. It’s been really, really good for me and if you’re learning a new language it will be really, really good for you too.