I sat in the sunshine in a cafe in my new adopted city of Seville, chatting to a Spanish friend about life in Andalusia. We talked about southern Spanish traditions, the prospects for young people and of course, the fiestas of the month that we would attend. And I did this all in Spanish.
A few months previously, I would stutter on even the simplest Spanish phrases, having studied the language for years but never really practiced with native speakers.
After Years of Spanish Study, I Still Mixed Up “Gracias” and “Hola”
Before moving to Spain I had been learning Spanish on and off for around six years.
I decided that this would be the year I finally became fluent.
From my studies, I’d worked up to a B1 level in Spanish. But my Spanish skills had receded, after having lived in Rome for one year and learning Italian.
My Spanish conversational level was still a strong A2, functional but basic. That said, at the start of my trip, I walked into a bakery and said “gracias” instead of “hola”!
Though I had a solid base in Spanish, I still found it difficult to hold conversations with native speakers. What’s more, I was living in Andalusia, a region renowned for having one of the hardest Spanish accents for learners.
As I sat chatting with my friend in the cafe, listening to my friend speak Spanish, I realised my Spanish was getting better and stronger.
Even my friend had noticed. “Wow! You speak a lot better than last time,” he said sounding quite perplexed. I had only been in Seville a few weeks; how could I be more fluent than I was last week? Wasn't learning a language supposed to take years instead of weeks?
My Language Learning “Formula”: Beer and Facebook
I used the same formula to learn Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
With each language I learned, the time it took to reach fluency decreased. This was partly because I recycled the techniques that worked and partly because they're all Latin languages, so a lot of the vocabulary and grammar is shared.
In fact, after becoming fluent in Spanish and Italian, all it took was a language-learning CD and a few weeks in Porto, Portugal to get to a conversational level of Portuguese.
I had the same routine for each language I learned: meeting up with native speakers in cafes for a “language exchange” arranged on Facebook. Each exchange only cost me the price of the beer, coffee or sangria from the cafe and a few hours of my time. The language exchanges I organised were always free for both of us, as we would spend half the time speaking Spanish and half the time speaking English, so we both benefitted.
Any free time I had was devoted to improving my Spanish. Some of my friends balked at this, saying that it must be exhausting doing so many language exchanges per day, but what's exhausting about meeting new people, learning, eating tapas and going for drinks?
It was incredible fun and in six months living in Barcelona, Cadiz, Granada and Seville, I had done over one hundred language exchanges, made new friends and memories and of course, significantly improved my Spanish.
It’s Easier than You Might Think to Find Work Overseas
Facebook and beer were my main tools for improving my Spanish, that and a willingness to make mistakes all day long and meet new people everyday.
But to make the most of these tools, I needed to move to the country whose language I planned to learn.
Now, it's true that you don't need to move to the country to learn a language, for me, immersion has always been a fun way of learning a language. You get to live in a new culture, travel, make new friends and learn the language in context.
How did I manage to live and work overseas? Using Workaway, I searched for work-exchanges in hostels.
Hostels are a great way of moving to a country to learn a language: you have an instant social life with the other workers, access to staff who are probably from the area, free rent, an awesome central location, a flexible work schedule and sometimes food and pocket money are included.
As an alternative, au pairing can work well, but your schedule will be more restricted, your hours longer and sometimes you will be employed only to speak English to the children. That said, you will likely earn more as an au pair compared to doing a work-exchange in a hostel.
I worked around twenty hours per week in hostels and relied on savings as the placements were not all paid. But with beer as cheap as €0.33 for a caña (a very petite Spanish beer) and food included, I barely had any expenses. And I made some extra money by teaching English on the side, which helped keep me afloat financially.
This was my foundation from which I learned a language and organised language exchanges for myself.
Here’s How I Used Facebook to Arrange Language Exchanges
As soon as I settled into my hostel, I used Facebook to find native Spanish/Italian/Portuguese speakers. Using Facebook's search bar, I would type:
[Name of city] + [Language exchange]
[Name of city in target language] + [translation of the word for “exchange” in target language]
So, for example, when I lived in Granada I would search:
- Granada Language Exchange
- Granada Learn English
- Granada Intercambios (translation: Granada Exchanges)
- Granada English
- Granada Inglés (translation: Granada English)
- Granada idiomas (translation: Granada Languages)
It's important to use lots of different combinations in both English and your target language because you want to find as many groups as possible.
Make sure to include the name of your city in English and your target language and to type the above search terms in both languages, with as many relevant words as you can think of. Add yourself to every single group you find. I normally added myself to at least ten groups per city.
In each group would post the same message. Here’s the exact script I used:
Hola! Soy una chica Inglesa y estoy buscando españoles para hacer intercambios de idioma. Si alguien quiere mejorar su Ingles y tomar algo, estaría encantada! Cualquier cosa, hablame por privado. Muchas gracias.
Translation: “Hi! I'm English and looking for Spanish people to do language exchanges with. If anyone wants to improve their English and grab a coffee or beer then send me a private message, thank you.”
I always wrote this message in the target language and would copy and paste this onto the wall of all the Facebook groups I joined.
Most language groups had hundreds, if not thousands of people on the page, so the post would get a lot of traction and I sometimes got as many as sixty requests in one city. One by one I would respond to each message inviting them for a coffee or a caña and arranging a day to meet through private messages.
I tested a few different approaches and found that it's better if you ask people to message you in private as they tend to tell you more about who they are and where they're from, rather than just letting people comment on the post, as the most they'll say is “I'm interested!” People are also more likely to respond to a private message than a long trail of comments on a single post.
I always tried to make plans quickly with the other person – ideally in the next couple of days. Otherwise it's too easy to lose momentum. Some people would be a bit surprised and asked if I wanted to chat a bit online first, but you can't really waste time getting bogged down in endless online chat. I often needed to learn the language in a few months, so met up with every single person who responded!
More Hints and Tips on Arranging Language Exchanges
Tip 1: Speaking English Gives You a Big Advantage
If you’re a native English speaker you will be at an advantage, as in countries like Spain and Italy the level of English is low and many youngsters are keen to learn it for work and potentially moving abroad, so you will be flooded with requests for an exchange. On the flip side, my approach doesn’t work as well in countries where the level of English is high. In Portugal, for example, the level of English is high and more on par with Germany than Spain and Italy, so the only responses to my language exchange requests came from a few Brazilians living in Portugal.
Tip 2: Keep it Local: Small Cities are Better than Big Cities (Smaller cities are better than bigger cities?)
Living in smaller cities accelerated my language learning and I recommend places like Cadiz over bigger cities like Barcelona. Though I only spent three weeks in Cadiz, I met so many people and made a lot of friends. In Barcelona, it was harder to meet people and the logistics of doing language exchanges were a nightmare, simply because it took a lot of time (and money) to get from one side of the city to the other.
Tip 3: Connect with International Students
Smaller cities with a university typically have a strong Erasmus community, which can be a boon if you want to practice other European languages. As I spoke Italian and Spanish, Erasmus and other international student groups were fantastic exposure and Erasmus students are a friendly bunch.
Tip 4: Carry a Notebook to All Your Language Exchanges
As you are doing so many language exchanges, it's important to establish best practices, as you don't want to waste those hours. I always carried a notebook with me and got my language exchange partners to jot down useful words and phrases, which I would then upload as flashcards on my phone, using Anki. I then tried to ensure that I used them in conversation in the next few days.
Tip 5: You Don’t Have to Drink Beer!
My method also works for non-drinkers! I only drank beer in the language exchanges because at €0.33 for a caña it ended up being cheaper than coffee and even water. I would try and ensure that my language exchanges were at least one hour in English and one hour in Spanish, so that even if I had three in one day, I would spend around €0.99 for three drinks, six hours of socialising and meeting Spanish people and three hours of actually speaking Spanish. So, this ended up being far cheaper than doing classes and a much more effective way of getting speaking practice.
What Level Did I Reach in Spanish?
I ended up with so much speaking practice that I reached a strong B2 level after 3 months.
I probably could have reached this goal sooner, but all my friends working in the hostel with me were Italian, so I spoke Italian inside the hostel and Spanish outside of it. Initially it was hard switching between the two languages, but it ended up being fantastic practice because by the end, each language was a separate beast and my Italian went from B2 to C1. Incidentally, the same thing happened in Portugal, where everyone working in my hostel was Spanish and a lot of our guests were Italian, so I got to practice those while also doing Portuguese language exchanges.
The hundreds of language exchanges I did in Spain, Portugal, Italy were amazing and the best memories I have of living abroad and learning a new language. So, if you want to live abroad, get to know a new culture and learn a language cheaply (or for free) whilst making new friends, make sure to organise your own one-on-one language exchanges, it'll be the most fun you have abroad!