What to expect from a language exchange

At Cadence we have clients from all over the World, so it makes sense for us to be able to communicate with people in different languages. Last week I headed down to one of London’s many language exchanges to see what was going on and to get a bit of practice in.

The language exchange concept is very simple. It is a place where you can meet other people who want to practise a foreign language. If you wanted to go there and practise your Danish, you would go and try to find either a Danish person or somebody else learning the language. Often people will have badges on that show their nationality, or there’ll be tables with little flags on them to help everybody navigate. Because conversation is the primary activity, the success of the event depends on creating an environment that is conducive to conversation.

The exchange I went to this week was unusual in that it took place inside a nightclub. Airport style security on the way in and the sensation of being in a disco at 8pm on a work night were unsettling, but I was soon chatting to a nice group of people; a very shy Korean woman, a Slovenian lady and a hotel receptionist from Doncaster. The language was Italian. Strange combinations like this are a big part of the appeal of language exchanges. In day to day life we like to make communication as hassle-free as possible, and usually speak in whichever language is most convenient for everybody. Deliberately challenging yourself by refusing to use your native language can be frustrating, but is an excellent way to improve your ability in another language and to help you to focus on what you’re trying to say and how to express it clearly. And you get to meet some lovely people along the way.

There are some drawbacks to the format. Because they usually take place in bars and can be a bit nerve-wracking, people can get pretty overexcited with the drinks, and the combination of exotic languages and mandatory conversation means that it’s a great place to meet new people, which can sometimes make it seem a bit more like speed-dating than a language club. Multi-Level-Marketing scheme representatives also prey on language exchanges, keen to make new connections to help boost their income.

Last week’s event didn’t seem to suffer with either of these problems, as far as I could tell, but it did suffer from being held in an unsuitable venue. Most people feel pretty anxious about walking into a room full of strangers and approaching someone they don’t know, so a room that helps create a positive atmosphere goes a long way toward making people feel more relaxed. When people feel relaxed, they are happier to communicate. And when people are happy to communicate, the sky is the limit for what they can achieve.

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