I left Skype and shook my head in amazement. During my hour of English-Spanish conversation, my companionMonica, a woman who teaches high school Spanish in a small town in Kansas, told me how not only did she grow up with nine siblings, but she also had two other sisters who died in childhood.
“My family of five was large and sometimes competitive,” I replied. “But I can’t imagine nine brothers and sisters.”
Family size is just one topic that Monica and I discussed over the 6 weeks we chatted on Skype. We also chatted about the Afghan refugees she used to teach in Spain, her weekend in Chicago, and our respective family members.
These are the meaningful conversations I have, thanks to a free website called Conversation Exchange, where people chat with others around the world in order to practice a language. It’s simple: you create a profile, indicating which is your mother tongue and in which language you wish to practice, and at which level. You can also set up filters, such as age and gender. And if you’d rather write back and forth than chat, you can filter by “correspondent”.
Fun and free friendships thanks to ‘Intercambios’
After posting my profile, I received an offer from a 30-year-old from Buenos Aires who I expected had a difficult accent (Argentinian Spanish, like that of Chile, 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 to ask questions. For example, he asked me why there was both a Humboldt Redwoods State Park and a Redwoods National and State Park. Wasn’t that confusing?
No kidding! When I complimented him on everything he knew about my field, he said he had done extensive research before our weekly session because he was shy and wouldn’t know what else to say.
I always like to hear about the other of my partners companions, 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 going to England in the fall, Arturo and I agreed to move on to other partners. On my return, I started a new intercambio (exchange) with a divorced guy from Costa Rica. After a few weeks, I felt frustrated because sometimes he 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 over the last 6 months is that not everyone is suitable, so now with new partners I suggest we test (try) a session before committing.
After Arturo, I had a companion 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 mother and sister, a custom I have never seen in the States States but which is still common in some Latin countries. She is a language virtuoso: not only does she teach Spanish, but she has also taught French through the Alliance Française and also speaks Italian and German.
She teaches 6 days a week, a lifestyle that seems workaholic to me, but she seems happy enough. I was curious to know why neither she nor her sister were married. At the start of our relationship, I thought it was too early to ask, then we stopped dating because she was too busy.
During this time, I was approached by a somewhat nerdy but fun 32-year-old data analyst from Monterrey, Mexico, another companion who speaks excellent English. With Ivan, I wasn’t sure what we would have in common, so I sent him a list of topics that interested me, including hobbies, family, Mexican attitudes towards Spain, cooking, our favorite foods, exercise, college experiences, stress, travel and friendship. But we had so many other things to discuss that we just touched on the relationship between Mexico and Spain.
learn from my mistakes
Often when I make a mistake, Ivan looks deeply pained and twists his face in a way that makes me laugh. I tease him about it. I made a stupid mistake saying ” much better ? (“very better”), and he replied, “Noca! Es muy feo!” (i.e. “Never! Very badly!”)
One day, I was surprised when, after mentioning a robbery in his street, he used the English expression “those mothers *****s”. I was surprised, not because I was criticizing him for his swearing, but because he sounded so natural.
Ivan teaches me a lot about Mexican Spanish, like the existence of gender identity markers. Where before people only said todos (for “all”, in the masculine), or today (feminine), now you also have todes (gender neutral). This was all very new to me. I had no idea.
Friendships around the world
Monica, my companion from Spain, is the partner I feel closest to. We have so much to talk to each other, we now talk to each other twice a week. Like me, she talks so fast it’s hard to make a correction, although she always appreciates it when I do. She told me she couldn’t believe there were 15 churches of different denominations in Sabetha, the small Kansas town of 2,500 where she teaches. I explained that many parts of the rural Midwest are deeply religious and conservative. She was also shocked by restrictive abortion laws in Kansas and neighboring states, unlike Spain which, despite being a Catholic country, legalized abortion in 2010. “For me,” said she said one morning, “America is like a film set.” I burst out laughing because that’s exactly what my husband Barry 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 mother’s sense of isolation, coupled with her own problems getting her visa renewed. I made a big gesture hug (hug) to her from 2,000 miles in California.
Since last summer, when I created my profile, I have had five contacts, and my intercambios have become one of my favorite weekly routines. Not only do I practice Spanish, but I can also make friends and discover other cultures. And as the website says, “there’s no cost or assignments to do and it’s fun.”
Here are five suggestions for getting the most out of a chat session:
- Try to be more or less at the same level of fluidity as your partner.
- Decide on your format and duration. Usually it’s 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 site, like, Have you ever been on television? Sung in public? Ride a horse? Have you tried an extreme sport? Broken a bone? Have you met a celebrity? Sleep in a tent?
- Decide which time zones you are comfortable with. Not everyone can stay awake during a 5 a.m. conversation 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 anything like me, you’ll rejoice in everyone Charles (discuss) all week, and savor it long after.
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