Building Skills and Friends Through Language Exchange

The library at NTU
The library at NTU

This summer I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of months in Taipei, Taiwan studying Mandarin Chinese at the International Chinese Language Program. It was a great experience and probably one my best summers ever – meeting new people, exploring a new place, and really improving my Chinese through intensive study.

Some of my cooler experiences from Taiwan involved language exchanges with local friends. I met with two Taipei residents, Angela and Lynn, separately usually once a week, and we would alternate between English and Mandarin conversation for a couple of hours.

It turns out that language exchange is a pretty common practice at National Taiwan University (NTU), where my language program was located. The language center on campus had tons of flyers from people seeking exchange partners, as did the bulletin board in the lobby of my dormitory (although it was actually a mutual friend who initially introduced me to Angela and Lynn).

According to Angela, who completed her undergraduate degree at NTU, language exchange has become especially popular in the last few years as the campus internationalized. She expressed disappointment that she could find comparatively few Chinese-English language exchange opportunities at her university in London. At George Washington University, where I go to school in the U.S., the opportunities for language exchanges are also pretty scarce. I’ve seen the occasional flyer advertising them on bulletin boards around campus, but there isn’t the same culture of language exchange that I found in Taipei.

One of the bulletin boards filled with advertisements for language exchanges
One of the bulletin boards filled with advertisements for language exchanges

For Angela and Lynn, there were a lot of different reasons for pursuing a language exchange with a native English speaker. On a practical level, for Angela it was a way to maintain her oral English, since she had recently returned from a year in England. She also wanted help going over the finer points of her MA thesis draft, so we devoted a lot of our English conversation time to that.

For Lynn it was a way to practice her spoken English before leaving at the end of August to work in Hong Kong for a year. She wanted to prepare herself for working in an English-language environment, especially having never studied or worked abroad before.

On my side, language exchange was a way to practice Chinese with a native speaker and someone familiar with the country. Our meetings were a nice break from the classroom environment, and we could chat casually about a range of topics. I found it helpful for picking up the common parlance that I didn’t really get from standardized Chinese textbooks and about which I didn’t always have the opportunities to ask my instructors. It was also free, whereas finding a private tutor in Taipei can be very expensive (compared to when I lived on mainland China, where I never would have done language exchange because tutors were so cheap).

My language exchange partner Angela
My language exchange partner Angela

Getting together for language exchange was also a way to branch out and explore different places. Usually I’d meet Angela and Lynn at a coffee shop or tea house close to campus or near the train station, but sometimes we would try to mix things up. One Tuesday for example, Lynn suggested that we see the university’s symphony orchestra perform at the national concert hall, since she was a former orchestra member herself and knew many people involved in the show. One Sunday morning, instead of doing our usual thing at Starbucks, I met Angela near the Taipei 101 skyscraper and she showed me around a famous local bookstore after we finished our exchange.

On the other hand, because it was so undisciplined and unstructured, language exchange wasn’t nearly as efficient as learning Chinese in the classroom. It also would have been pretty difficult to fit into our schedules if the three of us had not been so free this summer, since each session took a long time, and half of that time was just chatting in my native language. Since language exchange is so informal, I think a lot depends on the rapport that you develop with your partner. If you can’t carry an enjoyable conversation together, then motivation and enthusiasm for getting together might fade pretty quickly.

Now that I’m back home in the U.S., I’m glad that I tried my hand at language exchange this summer. I feel like I gained something from it, although I also think in the end the benefits were more social and about experiencing new things than they were about improving my Chinese language. For Angela and Lynn, being from Taipei and already settled in the area, their goals were much more focused on the language-learning aspect. I’m not sure if language exchange is something that I’ll continue to seek out now that I’m back in the U.S., since I’m much busier here, but it’s something I’ll keep my mind open too depending on what comes up.