If you’ve read Errant in Iberia you’ll know that the whole intercambio (language exchange) process was fairly instrumental in the fact that I planned to only spend one month in Madrid… and have now been here nearly 12 years!
My intercambio lead me to a wife, and a life, in Spain, so you can imagine I am a fairly big fan of the whole idea! So I was really happy when I got an email from Foster Hodge, with an excellent account of his intercambio experiences. I’ve included the whole article here, it’s a great read:
Mi Primer Intercambio - by Foster Hodge
After spending more or less a month in Madrid, working on my Spanish, learning the ropes of the city, and falling in love with a new and exciting culture—I decided it was high time to take the next step. I had received quite a bit of encouragement from friends and professors of mine that I should get myself an intercambio, or a language exchange partner.
I decided to put my nerves aside and posted an anuncio in loquo.com, a wonderful website that offers a wide variety of things from renting and buying property, to citas de Internet and intercambios.
To my surprise, a couple days after posting my anuncio my inbox was flooded with responses from young Spaniards who were interested in meeting with me for a language exchange…
I quickly came to the realization that there are way more Spaniards in Madrid trying to learn English than there are native English speakers trying to learn Spanish. This boosted my confidence a bit, and prompted me to realize that my skills as a native English speaker were sought after and highly valued in Spain’s vibrant capital.
The next step was to choose one of the madrileños that had contacted me, get in touch with them, and set up some weekly meetings to begin our intercambio. I decided to contact a madrileña that was the same age as me, and also had some shared academic interests. We shared a series of e-mails, talked a bit about our interests and schedules, and we decided that we would make a nice fit for an intercambio. She suggested that we meet in a couple of days at the statue of the Oso y el Madroño in La Puerta del Sol, a place where apparently todo el mundo comes to meet for intercambios.
Let me first put a couple of things in perspective. In the days leading up to my first intercambio, I was quite excited about the prospect of spending some time with a young madrileña. I had only been in Madrid studying for about a month or so, but I was learning fast and was sure that a positive intercambio experience would drastically improve my Spanish, and that my friends and peers would be amazed by my progress.
Additionally, I had yet to meet a Spaniard that I wasn’t fond of. My host family, my teachers, any Spaniard that I ran into on the street seemed to be remarkably nice and interesting. I had already made a lot of comparisons between the Spanish and the Irish. They are both groups of people who inherit intrinsically likable qualities. They quickly make you feel at one with their way of life and their culture. They are the kind of people that you can have a brief conversation with and already feel like you have known them for a lifetime.
Naturally, when the day of my first intercambio arrived, all of this excitement and all of these positive thoughts quickly vanished from my mind. As I was making my way to La Puerta del Sol, my shyness and lack of confidence in my Spanish abilities began to take over. What are we going to talk about? What if I can’t understand her Spanish? What if she can’t understand my English? What if I forget all the things I have learned over the last month?
This is my first time really applying the Spanish I have learned into a real-life situation outside of the classroom. Why hadn’t I thought about all the potential things that could go disastrously wrong during a first intercambio?!
I arrived to the statue in Sol a little bit early, anxiously looking around to see if anyone fit the description. No one yet. I wondered if maybe I still had time to run into a bar and grab a couple of cañas to combat my nervousness. The moment the thought crossed my mind a young Spanish girl came up to me with a big smile on her face and said, ¡Hola Foster! ¿Eres tú?
I stood frozen for a moment, first taken aback by the fact that this girl was absolutely stunning. She had big beautiful brown eyes, a wide welcoming smile, and the slightly prominent chin structure that many Spaniards tend to have. In retrospect, I am not sure why I was surprised by her attractiveness, because about 90% of the Spanish girls I have met are drop-dead gorgeous.
After standing star-struck for quite some time, I fretfully replied that I was in fact the one she was waiting for and asked her in my most nervous Spanish where she wanted to go to chat for a little bit. She proceeded to give me dos besos and asked if I would like to go to La Latina, one of her favorite barrios in Madrid. Before we had even reached La Latina, she had used her inherent Spanish pleasantness to make me feel at ease. To this day one of my favorite things about Spaniards is how comfortable they feel around you and how comfortable they make you feel around them.
We arrived at Cava Baja, a street in La Latina that is literally composed of only bars! I would guess at least 60 of them. I frequented the area consistently throughout my semester abroad and I still don’t think I went to an eighth of the bars that are there. We walked around a bit, peeking into bars and people watching, and then finally decided on a sleek modern looking café that was less crowded than some of the others.
We had a couple of cañas (which got me speaking less nervously), and we talked about everything from our childhoods to jamón ibérico to health care reform in the US and everything in between. We spoke in Spanish for about two hours without realizing how quickly the time was passing. I still have trouble describing how good it felt to really speak Spanish with a native Spanish speaker for the first time. I was actually expressing my thoughts and feelings while maintaining a solid conversation, and it was genuinely one of the most positive and healthy sensations I have ever had.
As we were moving on to our third or fourth caña, a group of her friends happened to walk in. They all introduced themselves and were very nice, and they were incredibly excited about the fact I was a native English speaker. They were all in the process of learning English so I suggested that we should all switch to English for a while. I was impressed by how well they spoke English and they complimented me on my Spanish as well.
We spoke in English for a couple of hours, they continually asked me questions and I gave them advice and taught them as much cool colloquial English from the deep south of the United States as I could. Eventually one of the Spaniards suggested that we go to a discoteca. I was slightly hesitant at first as I had never been to a discoteca, but they all assured me that it would be a good time.
And they were right, it was an absolute blast! Although I am not much of a dancer, I danced all night and had an amazing time. On my walk home, I thought back to earlier that evening when I was nervously walking to Sol and truly couldn’t believe that my first intercambio experience turned out to be what I still consider one of the best nights of my life.
After my first experience with language exchanges I became obsessed with them. I met with several different Spaniards three or four times a week and I can honestly say that I never had a negative experience. Often I would meet their friends and I would introduce them to mine. On more than one occasion I was invited to their house and ate meals with their entire family (I will admit that a meal with an entire Spanish family can be a nerve-wrecking experience!).
Eventually I stopped considering my intercambio as language exchanges as thought of them as simply going to hang out with my Spanish friends. And all my intercambios are friends that I still keep in close contact with well after my return to the United States. Above all, my intercambios taught me an enormous amount about the Spanish language and about Spaniards, and my time in Spain was an exponentially richer experience because of them.
Thanks Foster! Please feel free to reply to Foster, or to let us know about your intercambio experiences, in the comments below!
Also of interest for Spanish learners: “Top Ten Dead-Giveaways That You’re a Gringo Speaking Spanish, Even if You Speak Well …!”