Why you should join an intercambio

Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

How do you practise Spanish? Do you practise in a class, with a Spanish friend, when you go to Spain? Or, perhaps, you don’t actually practise at all… Getting Spanish practice (AKA talking!) is crucial – it’s the reason we learn Spanish, and it has no substitute. Yet many of us struggle to actually use the language we spend so long studying. One solution is the “intercambio”, where speakers of both languages come together to practise each other’s language.

There are different types of intercambios, from meeting one person and agreeing to practise each other’s language, to large groups who take part in organised activities. In the recording below I speak with Mykal (pictured, left), who is the organiser of the biggest intercambio group that I know of – London Spanish Language Meetup. This group contains thousands of members, meeting regularly in bars (where this was recorded, hence the background noise…), pubs, boats, and taking advantage of London’s rare Summer days in the parks. They’ve even organised holidays! Here’s what he has to say about what they do, and their “razón de ser”:

I’ve taken part in various intercambios with varying degrees of success. One of my first intercambios was when I was living in Valencia, and arranged to meet a guy to practise Spanish. We went to his flat, and alarm-bells started ringing pretty quickly! I won’t go into more details, but I decided not to meet again! From this point, I decided to take part only in group intercambios. It seems that a lot of people use intercambios as a type of online dating, so be aware of that if you decide to do “solo” intercambios.

Many people are after more than a language exchange in an intercambio, and if you are looking to just practise your Spanish I highly recommend you join a group rather than meet with individuals in person. You’ll get more chances to meet a variety of people, and if you are at a more humble level, you will be able to find people of a similar ability. You’ll also be able to repeat your conversation topics with different people if your vocabulary is limited or you just need further practice. Of course, the idea is to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and a good intercambio offers a supportive environment in which you are encouraged to do so.

Aside from great practice, intercambios offer a remarkably cheap way to interact with Spanish speakers. You may have to pay for a drink or two, but you won’t need to fly over to Spain, or pay expensive entry fees. They are also very effective for practising certain types of conversation – you’ll introduce yourself a lot of times, and make small talk with people you don’t know. All useful skills for when you need to do it “for real” when abroad!

Language exchanges give you an opportunity to practise your Spanish; however, they do not offer “lessons” as such. If you’re not comfortable feeling like you’re getting left behind in conversations, or that you need a more academically supportive atmosphere, you may struggle. In the audio, Mykal makes the point that “we can’t teach people Spanish, we can only provide them with the environment where they can practise what they’ve already learned”. However, the very best intercambios are more than just a language exchange. Intercambios such as the London Spanish Language Meetup offer a way in to the culture, and help you to feed your passion for the language and country with like-minded people.

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Top tips to get the best out of a Spanish Language Exchange

Talk to lots of people

Not only will you get lots of different types of practice, you can practise the same types of conversation if you need to. Intercambios ofen incorporate regular changes of language partner into their activities.

Be bold, don’t be shy

Generally good advice when looking to practise speaking, and it applies here too. Don’t be a wallflower, as you won’t learn anything. Do approach people – everyone’s there for the same reason, so you don’t need to be shy.

Bring a notebook, don’t be afraid to use it

You may be struck with sudden insight, or hear some useful vocabulary in your conversations. Feel free to note it down. In regular conversations, this may seem weird and even annoying, but given the circumstances of an intercambio it’s perfectly acceptable.

PS – many thanks to Mykal for both taking the time to talk with us, and for his effort in organising one of the best language exchanges out there. If you live in London, be sure to check it out. Maybe we’ll see each other there!

3 Responses

  1. Brilliant write-up, I must say. What’s the point of spending hours, months, or even years in learning the language if not to ever use it in the streets! However, while intercambios are undoubtedly one of the best means of getting that crucial exposure, we must not forget that there Spanish-enthusiasts also exists in some of the most “un-Spanish” corners of the world, such as India or Mongolia! They are far from any bit likely to have a native speaker of this language as their neighbor and even these meet-ups might not be possible because of their sheer distance from any Hispanic community.

    For such folks, I would strongly recommend online voice chat using tools such as Skype. You can easily strike an acquaintance over a language exchange website such as Livemocha or iTalki and then (after getting reasonably comfortable) move over to Skype for voice practice. In fact, Livemocha has a healthy community of native speakers and learners, perhaps the largest of its kind.

    In a nutshell, with the ever pervasive nature of the Web, you just don’t have any excuse for NOT putting your Spanish to good use, i.e., real conversations!



  2. Estoy de acuerdo con ustedes, hacer un intercambio es escencial para perfeccionar tu español. Hablo mucho con amigos por Skype, es la única cosa que puedo hacer, es imposible quedar con alguien cara a cara porque vivo en un pueblo pequeño en el norte de Inglaterra. Si viviera en Londres como ustedes, dispondría de más oportunidades, seguro que sí. Hago todo lo que puedo para aumentar mi vocubulario pero no es fácil, aquí actualmente no hay ningún profesor de español, y rara vez hay, es una desventaja de vivir aquí.

  3. I live in Stratford-upon-Avon in the middle of England and I’m for an intercambio to practise my Spanish. I can help with their English. My teacher tells me I’m B1/B2 level.

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