I’ve been pretty sappy lately. Let’s talk about an experience that was mildly funny and educational. I recently did a language exchange over the phone with a Japanese girl. It was a very interesting experience. It’s strange to think that these days we can so easily communicate with someone across the planet.
Entire countries and cultures are at our fingertips at the literal click of a button. We are able to learn so many things about the world that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do unless we traveled a couple thousand miles. I think we often forget how cool that is and forget to make use of it. There is so much to be learned from each other in all areas, from philosophy to language to neuroscience. There are so many possibilities for advancement that the human race has just by simply exchanging information with people who are different from them. We don’t have to wait for some letter or manuscript to travel over deserts, across oceans, or through jungles to talk to each other from long distance anymore. We can open up a dialogue with someone from across the world with just a few swipes of a mouse across a computer screen. I for one would like to take advantage of that massive power.
The other day I wanted to explore the world through the lens of a different language and learn some things about culture along the way.
As you guys know, I’m in the process of learning Japanese. There are virtually no Japanese speakers in my area, (trust me I’ve looked, the Asian people in Japanese restaurants are deceiving), and this would be a great obstacle to my ability to practice speaking Japanese. But luckily there’s this amazing thing called the interwebs that has been allowing me to practice my Japanese with native Japanese speakers. I’d been practicing writing to Japanese speakers for over a year, but I wanted to take it to the next level by actually speaking the language with my mouth instead of my fingertips. There’s such a big difference in those specific levels of fluency and I didn’t wanted to let the gap widen any more than it already had.
There’s this uber useful app called HelloTalk that is basically the language exchange equivalent of Facebook. It used to be that you could just message people with text, but they revamped their platform and it now has been set up in a way where you have a wall that you can pose questions to the world at large on, post about what you did that day in the language you’re learning, share pictures and videos about your culture to help people who are trying to learn about your language & culture, and send out video chats or phone calls. It’s amazingly versatile and well formatted (unlike that last mess of a sentence). You search for people with similar language proficiency levels as you so that you can both benefit exchanging languages with each other. It is the bomb dot com and I’m so glad someone recommended it to me because I would otherwise have been stuck in a rut in my language studies a long time ago. By the way this is so not a sponsored article. I really just love this app that much. There’s only so much textbooking and self-study you can do.
Anyway, I bet you guys are like, hurry up and get to the part where you spoke to a Japanese girl.
Okay, okay. Sheesh.
So someone had posted on their wall that they were looking for someone to practice speaking English with on the regular basis because her formal English classes were over for the summer and she didn’t want to lose what she learned. Because HelloTalk is amazing and allows you to make free international calls once you become a member for a very small fee of $9.49/year, I was like “Yeah, I’m down. Hit me up if you want to talk!”
(Actually, I didn’t really speak like that. I generally avoid using slang unless specifically asked for it, because it confuses non-native English speakers. But you get the drift.)
Here’s the thing with language exchange, at least with what I’ve experience thus far on the Japanese side of the equation. Finding someone to chat with long-term is hard to find. A lot of time people will start excitedly talking to you using what little basic English they know, then fall off the map a few days later because they’ve run out of things to say. This is very frustrating. HelloTalk mitigates this problem by allowing you to read every person’s self-proclaimed language ability level and letting you see how many language corrections, transliterations, posts, etc. that they’ve made on HelloTalk. In other words, it doesn’t tell you how long someone has been on the site, buuuut by virtue of letting you view their activity you can get a good sense of who’s really serious about doing language exchange and who’s just dallying about, perhaps trying to get an international girlfriend with the horrible pickup lines they learned from the internet.
“A Toyota is what I feel like. You know why? Because I could not stop from speeding over to you.”
Anyway, the point of me saying all this is that I was super glad that there is a function on the app that lets you make a language proposal to the world at large instead of forcing you to weed people out one by one. A lot of the people on the app are too shy to speak or videochat, so it’s nice to be able to get in touch with the people who aren’t.
We set up a date and time to talk and got in contact with each other. It was such a fun and informational experience. There were a bunch of things we taught each other about our respective languages that it might have taken ages to get to had we just been messaging each other.
For example, I used the term “oyaji” for parents because it’s the only term I could remember and she told me to be careful using that word, because it was a term usually only boys use. Apparently I sounded like a teenage Japanese boy.
I was also using the phrase “ii desu” to communicate “That’s fine. It’s okay.” But that can come off as annoying, especially after a couple times so she advised me to use the phrase, “Daijoubu.” Which literally means “It’s okay,” whereas “ii desu” literally means “It’s good.” It’s not even that I didn’t know the word daijoubu, I just didn’t think about the possibly condescending connotation ii desu might carry. I‘m so glad she let me know a better way of getting my point across. It probably would have taken me a long time to realize that and caused many an awkward situation talking to other people.
Now don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a perfectly magical experience where we connected as friends and understood everything each other was saying. Sometimes a full minute would pass between questions just because I was trying to translate my English sentences into Japanese. (Tip: Don’t try to translate your native language into the language you’re learning. I know it’s tempting but in the end, chances are the grammar of the language you’re learning is very different, so you’re probably actually getting in your own way.)
One of the things I re-realized while engaging in this experience is how much I still have to learn. Nothing like a living, breathing person on the other line, waiting for you to remember how to say something as simple as “I went on a cruise to the Bahamas this summer,” to make you realize your language ability is still laughably low. But I think the most important thing I learned from this experience is being okay with that fact. So I’m not perfect at this language yet, so what? I probably never will be. The process of language learning is an ongoing one. I will always be learning new vocabulary and new ways to express things in Japanese. Heck, I’m still doing that in English! That’s what language is, a living organism that changes with the people who use it. There will always be a better way I could have communicated something to another person. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not I successfully got my point across to the other person. That is the point of language after all. To communicate. You might as well have fun while making mistakes because you’re going to make them no matter what. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a learning thing. I’ve learned to take myself a lot less seriously.
That being said, there are some tips I would recommend doing to make your potential language exchange experience a more productive one. The first thing is I realized I should have had a notebook handy. I learned so much in just a 50 minute conversation and yet the majority of it vanished from memory the moment we hung up just because I hadn’t written it down. Even though I repeated the new terms I learned a couple times! Note-take, note-take, note-take! It might seem lame because you are literally writing down simple things a person is saying to you, but you have to remember to make it a useful study experience. As you become more fluent, you’ll take less notes and you’ll feel less lame. You’ll get to the point where you only learned a thing or two new because you’re fluent enough to get wrapped up in the fun of the conversation and that’ll be great. But what would really be more lame is if you ended up like me, forgetting about 80% of what you learned.
The second thing I would recommend you doing during language exchange, (which will also seem lame), is to have a list of interesting topics that you’re able to talk about ready. For the most part my experience went alright, but our conversation floundered a little. If you’re a person who is not such a great conversationalist such as myself, don’t be ashamed to keep a list of interesting questions/topics handy just to keep the flow of conversation going. You definitely want your language partner to be interested enough to actually do language exchange with you again!
Long-term language exchange partners have such great value because you don’t have to go through the basic introductory small talk again, (which you memorized since the first couple of weeks of learning the language but actually prove nothing of your language skill). Another great thing about a long term language exchange partner is that they already know what you do and do not understand in their language, so your exchange can be a lot more useful as you cut to the good stuff.
I definitely recommend doing online language exchange to anyone learning a new language. It’s kind of necessary if you really want to become fluent. And I also would highly recommend you doing it through HelloTalk. This app rocks.
I’ll probably be telling you more about my language exchange adventures in the future, so until then.