Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

The Crosstalk Method: How to Start a Language Exchange from Zero

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Doing a language exchange is a great way to learn a foreign language. We can get better at the language we are learning, and at the same time we can start getting in contact with the people and the culture of the language. Maybe even making some great lifelong friends, like in Elizabeth’s story.

However, it can be hard to hold a conversation in the language at the beginning, when your level is not yet high enough, and it may leave you feeling like something’s wrong with your brain.

Elizabeth herself experienced this when she attended language exchange events as a beginner. When we just start learning a foreign language we can't really say anything, and even if we can say a little, it can be quite exhausting to sustain a long conversation.

Let me introduce you to your savior: crosstalk! Crosstalk not only solves these problems, but is also probably the single most efficient way to start learning a language from zero… that is… until we find a way of turning ourselves into babies and dropping ourselves off in baskets on the doorsteps of some kind foreign families.

What is Crosstalk?

The basic idea of crosstalk is very simple: you speak your own language (which your partner is learning) and your partner speaks their language (which you are learning). I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you want your partner to be a native speaker of the language. Both partners practice understanding the language they are learning, and they don’t speak it.

Does Crosstalk Really Work?

Crosstalk seems to go against what a language exchange is about, but actually it has a few awesome advantages:

  • It's easier to do for complete beginners, since you don't even need to know any words in the target language beforehand.
  • It's more relaxed. You don’t have to stress over how you are going to say things.
  • Since you don’t have to think about how you say things, you can pay more attention to what your partner is saying and make the most of the input you are receiving, since you are not distracted thinking about your next sentence.
  • Last, but still really important, is a more efficient use of your time. Since you are not spending 50% of the time in each language like in regular tandems, 100% of the input you get is in your target language, which is especially useful at the beginning when you need to learn plenty of words but you still don't have that much to say.

When used at the beginner level, crosstalk can be paired with drawing on a notebook, gestures, facial expressions and picture sheets. It may seem hard to believe until you try it, but this technique allows any two people to communicate and have a full conversation even if there is no shared language between them.

My Experience with Crosstalk

I started messing around with crosstalk around four years ago. Initially, I used it to keep improving my Thai, which was already at an intermediate level, and to start learning Mandarin.

Very soon I started organizing events to show people how to do it, and to practice it myself in a variety of languages. It was great to meet so many people from so many different backgrounds, and have everyone communicating naturally in the language that they felt most comfortable with, while we were all still understanding one another.

At the time of writing this post, I've done more than 700 hours of crosstalk in different languages. I've done it for languages in which I knew zero, and even with partners who knew nothing about my language. I actually made a point of doing it for languages for which I was a complete beginner, to make sure that I got the beginning nailed down. I've used it with Vietnamese, Korean, Polish, Russian, Slovene and Turkish.

I even turned myself into a guinea pig, demonstrating that crosstalk can be used to learn a language up to a high intermediate level by doing it myself with Thai. I can definitely tell you that crosstalk works very well at every level of the language learning journey.

How to Start Using Crosstalk

As I explained, crosstalk simply refers to doing a language exchange, but each speaker only speaks their native language. In crosstalk, you practice understanding your target language, without practicing speaking it.

Therefore, the only thing you really need to do crosstalk is a speaker of the language that you want to learn, who is also interested in learning a language that you can speak. This is very easy to do nowadays with all the websites and apps that exist for that purpose.

To find a good partner, you can follow this extensive guide.

It’s not even necessary to find a person that lives nearby, since crosstalk is well suited for video chats. However, if you are a beginner in the language, it's much better to meet in person. When you meet somebody in person it becomes much easier to use the techniques I’ll teach you to start learning a language from zero. Also, the language will feel way more real when there’s a real person in front of you talking to you in that language.

How to do Crosstalk from the Very Beginning

Crosstalk is great for when you are a beginner, or even when you start learning a language from zero. Of course, when you start from zero, you won't understand most of the words your partner says. Maybe you won’t even understand any words at all! Here is where the magic of crosstalk resides. Contrary to what you might expect, you can use nonverbal communication to have a whole, complex conversation. You can do that with gestures, noises (yes, you can start practicing your dog barking noises), facial expressions, picture sheets, but most importantly by drawing.

Check out this video where I demonstrate how you can have a conversation even when you don’t know a word of one another’s language:

As you can see in the video, you can have a whole conversation using mostly drawings and gestures. It takes a little bit of practice, but soon you'll get good at it.

I recommend printing out sheets to help you communicate different things. In my case, I printed out maps, colors, a sheet with days of the week, times of the day and seasons, fruits and vegetables, and more. You can print out any sheets that will help you talk about the topics that you are interested in, be it inventors and their inventions, types of minerals, or the Disney Princesses (my favorite is Jasmine, of course).

When you start doing crosstalk with a new partner, it’s better to demonstrate it for them by telling them something about yourself first. You can tell your partner a story that happened to you, or talk to them about your childhood. Some topics that people usually love hearing about are the times that you were a bad child: times you stole something, times you got in trouble, or even times you hurt yourself.

Check out this video in which I talk about a time I stole something as a kid, using the communicative strategies that I explained before:

As the conversation goes on and you talk about different topics, you will notice that certain topics are harder to communicate in this way than others. Topics that include actions and movement are easier to represent visually with gestures and by drawing. Meanwhile, more abstract topics like philosophy, politics or even work are harder to convey, so it's better to leave them for later on. There are exceptions, but if you work at an office, it’s not going to be easy to represent what you do in a visual way.

If at any point you or your partner fail to make yourselves understood after several attempts, it usually means that what you are trying to explain is too abstract or too complicated. Most times it’s better to change the topic to a more suitable one for your level. Talking about your childhood is often easy. Since most things children do include actions and movement (I would say their lives consist of actions and movement), they’re quite easy to communicate nonverbally.

Crosstalk: Challenges and Troubleshooting

Any kind of language exchange can have some issues, and I also want to talk to you about the three most common ones that I've experienced that are specific to crosstalk, so that you'll know how to deal with them.

The first is having a partner that doesn't stick to speaking your target language. Some partners keep switching back to English, or to a language that you two have in common. The best way to handle that is to gently remind your partner to go back to the language they agreed to speak. Sometimes you may have to ask a few times, but most people get the idea after two or three times. The insistence on each person only speaking the language they are teaching is not because of trying to be a purist, but rather, it's needed to make sure that both partners learn to communicate in a simple manner with drawings and gestures, and don't use the common language as a crutch. Switching back to English or another common language often also ends up in both partners just speaking English for the rest of the session, which is far from ideal.

The second is having a partner that doesn’t speak, period. This is hilarious when it happens. After people realize that they can communicate solely by drawings and gestures, some will get so into it that they’ll forget that you are doing a language exchange. Because they are focusing so much on communicating and on seeing that you understand, some people will stop talking completely. They don’t notice it because their more immediate concern is being addressed: they are communicating. Of course, that totally misses the purpose of doing a language exchange so it needs to be taken care of. Luckily, this is even simpler to solve than the previous issue, and one single reminder will suffice most of the time to make your partner remember the reason you two met that day.

The third is your partner confusing crosstalk with an art class. Sometimes a partner can be unwilling to draw, because they feel self-conscious about their own drawing. Remind them gently that this is not an art class, and maybe draw badly on purpose when you demonstrate crosstalk to them so they realize that it’s okay to not be good at drawing. When I want to draw something badly I draw a dragon. I can’t seem to be able to draw a decent-looking dragon no matter how many times I try. If that doesn't help, you may need to find another partner, but this has only happened to me once.

The more time you spend with the same partner, the more used to doing crosstalk you’ll both get, and the easier it will become.

In Conclusion

This concludes this introduction to crosstalk. With this information you should be able to start or continue learning a language in one of the most fun and engaging ways out there, while relating with the people from the country and learning things about the culture.

You’ll also be able to resolve the main issues that you encounter along the way. I encourage you to go out and meet speakers of the language that you want to learn, and to talk to them about topics that you genuinely care about, even deeply personal things.

Don't be surprised though if you end up becoming closer to some of your partners than you thought you ever would!

author headshot

Pablo Román

Educational Content Creator

Pablo makes the easiest-to-understand videos in existence for learners of Spanish which he publishes for free on his YouTube channel.

Speaks: Spanish, Catalan, English, Japanese, French, Thai

Fluent in 3 Months Bootcamp Logo

Have a 15-minute conversation in your new language after 90 days