Doing a Language Exchange When You Can’t Meet a Native Speaker: Germain’s Story

Germain is from Benin and is studying in France at Supméca-Paris for a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering.  As part of his studies, he is required to do a number of internships, and his current internship has brought him to a university in America for a semester.  He contacted me a few months before coming to the U.S. because he was worried that his English wasn’t good enough and he couldn’t find many opportunities in Paris to practice with native speakers – this is the story of how he found a solution.

Hello everybody!

English spoken here
Photo by Nick Hoang

In each year of Supméca, we must do a mandatory internship. My dream was to perform my 2nd year internship abroad, especially in the U.S. After a huge amount of applications sent to companies and universities around the U.S., I ended up getting accepted for a research internship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

After being accepted, I immediately started to worry about my poor spoken English. As you know, for a non-native English speaker being able to write a resume or a cover letter doesn’t necessarily imply being able to have daily conversation free from, “What?” “Can you repeat that?” or “Can you speak more slowly, please?” That was my case.

I found my internship only 2 months and 2 weeks before it was supposed to start, so I needed a way to improve quickly. Going to England? That would be very nice! But also very expensive for me, at a time I was saving money for my stay in the U.S. What to do?

One of the bulletin boards filled with advertisements for language exchanges
In some places it's easy to do an in-person language exchange. Here are advertisements for partners at a university in Taiwan (Photo by Chris Wong)

So I asked almost everyone I know for suggestions and came up with the idea of doing a language exchange over Skype.  There are a bunch of websites and tools that can help you do that – I ended up using one called languages-exchanges.org.  The principle was easy. You put in your native language and the one you want to learn, and then find people who are the reverse.

The first person I chatted with (and by the way, the 2nd I know in the U.S.) was Michael, a 20-year-old student from Cartersville, Georgia. Michael is studying journalism, but might change his major. He is learning 3 languages: French, Turkish and Portuguese! Then, I got Rebecca from Brisbane, Australia, a 22-year-old girl. She learned graphic design at university, but when she attended a conference at which half the designers were self taught, she decided to quit university for online courses.

In addition, I met 6 others from the U.S., one from the U.K., one from Canada and even some from Venezuela and India.  Nearly all of them are young people who are still studying. But one guy from Honolulu, HI and another one from Toronto, Canada are 40 years old and both already working.

We typically begin by text chatting and then do a call. We’ll speak about 30 minutes in French (my native language), then 30 minutes in English. But we are free to use whatever combination of the two languages we prefer.

What do we talk about? Nearly anything. Studies, hobbies, daily life (what have you done today?), food, the people in our own countries. It’s also been a cross-cultural exchange, especially with my Australian friend. She showed me lot of species of birds you can only see in Australia. We were talking about the bird called budgerigar when she told me about the expression “budgie smuggler,” which is an Australian expression jokingly used to refer to a man with a small penis… (sorry for those who may feel uncomfortable).  Anyway, we talk about anything, even jokes (but we didn’t find any like the Pete And Repeat Are On The Boat joke 😉 ).

Germain’s referring to this podcast we did last year, discussing the ups and downs of studying in the U.S., and jokes that cross cultures. Scroll to 28:20 to hear the bit about the Pete and Repeat joke:

The biggest difficulty with it has been the time difference. Sometimes, someone has to wake up earlier than usual in the morning, or go to bed later. Brisbane, Australia is 8 hours different than Paris; when I got home from my summer job at 6 pm, it was already 2 am the next day over there. And when I was going to bed around midnight, it was still only 8 am. So sometimes my Australian friend had to wake up early in the morning (5-6 am) and sometime I remained awake until around 1 am. However we managed to meet on Saturday too, at a time that was suitable for us both.

Has that kind of language exchange really helped in improving my English? Yes, Absolutely. We correct each other when someone makes a mistake, and many of the mistakes I used to make have been corrected forever (I hope). There are some expressions I didn’t know until I discussed them with my English-speaking Skype partners.

I am now in the U.S., and I do keep asking people to repeat some of their sentences, but certainly less than I would without having had those language-exchanges. And I will keep on discussing with my e-friends.

Let me also tell you that thanks to them I learned some French rules too. Because sometimes, some of them have exercises to do in French and they ask me for some help. If I don’t know the answer, I search for it in French and then I explain it to them. That was the case with the question: “Quand mettre un ‘S’ à vingt et cent?” Thanks to Sofia, I know the answer now.

Anyway, I think that, when done seriously and regularly, it is a good way to improve one’s language skills, both written and spoken.

I can’t leave you without saying thanks to Jessica who helped me in finding that kind of exchange: thank you very much Jessica!

May you also enjoy that kind of a language exchange.

What techniques have you used to improve your English and prepare to study or work in the U.S.? Share that, or any other story about studying in the U.S. in the comments or using this form.

VOA StudentU

2 comments

  1. I wanted to share this non-profit website to travel abroad and learn foreign languages for free.
    http://www.languageforexchange.com/

    This is a language exchange community which allows people to make contact with those from other countries and organize their own exchanges.

    The idea is that you get to know each other online before agreeing to spend a certain amount of time staying with them in their country to live the local life and learn the native language. You’ll live in your language exchange friend’s house, like one of them, sharing their interests and taking part in activities.

    In turn, they can come and visit you for the same amount of time.

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