Oct 25th, 2021, 10:33 AM

Bonjour Paris: An Adventure in Conversation Exchange

By Erin Flanagan
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
Immersing in a new country and culture can be tough. Conversation exchanges to meet locals and practice the language make that easier.

Picture this. It's my first weekend in Paris, and I'm sitting on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Scanning the crowd, I'm looking out for a man named Alain who said he would be wearing a fedora and carrying a laptop bag.

Shielding my eyes against the blinding summer sun, I notice my palms are a bit sweaty, and I can't seem to stop jiggling my right knee up and down against the graveled path.

Is he going to show? Will this be awkward? What in the world are we going to talk about?

People keep strolling by, completely unaware of my inner turmoil; women wearing simple sundresses, a man pushing a baby carriage, kids chasing one another shrieking with laughter. I see a handful of baseball caps, a couple large sunhats, but no fedoras.

Now my left leg has joined the right, and I am nearly tapdancing in anticipation. 

Benches in the Jardin Du Lumbourg | Photo by Travis Grossen on Unsplash

Finally, out of the corner of my eye, a petit middle-aged man with square glasses and a fedora (this has to be him) approaches, tentatively waves, and says, "Erin?" I smile, take a deep breath, and say, "Bonjour."

No, this isn't a story about a blind date, but it sure felt like one. This was my first in-person meeting with Alain, one of my language exchange partners. We had connected on Conversation Exchange, a website dedicated to bringing together language learnings around the world.

The basic premise is this: people who want to practice a language (in my case French) can find someone who speaks that language. In turn, they want to learn yours, so you are both learning and teaching during the exchange.

Alain is one of the conversation partners I meet with regularly, usually over a café or while strolling around one of Paris' arrondissements.

There's also Auriane, a fellow cinephile; Phanou, a Ph.D. student originally from Togo; and more recently Caroline, a native Parisian who has lived all over the world.

In each of these interactions, I have met someone new who is curious, loves learning, and is interested in sharing their language and culture.

The website itself is reminiscent of an early 2000s message board and also, importantly, free. Learning a language can become prohibitively expensive, so having a free option makes this an accessible tool. 

Image: Conversation Exchange

Once on the site, you create a profile with your age, location, interests, and what you're looking for in a language exchange. For example, some people want to learn a language for professional reasons while others love the language or other personal reasons. 

You can specify if you're comfortable with in-person meetings or prefer video or even phone calls.

Then the search begins. You can customize your partner search by the language they speak, their proficiency levels, gender, age, just to name a few. People of all ages and interests use the site, so finding someone with whom you will have something in common isn't hard. 

Once you find someone you want to exchange with, send them a message to set up an initial conversation. I usually like to start with a video call to ensure conversational chemistry (and safety). From there, you can both decide how you want to structure the exchange, how often you wish to meet and share what you're both hoping to get out of it. 

It's important to know there will be some awkward moments, and that's totally normal.  Speaking to a stranger can already be intimidating, but add in the extra layer of a language barrier, and from time to time, you'll find yourself staring at your tea or Coca-Zero casting around for a subject. Having a basic conversation capacity in the language you're trying to learn will help you get through these moments without blanking on vocabulary or basic grammar. Even so, this is all part of the process!

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Immersing in a new country is challenging, but learning the language and meeting locals makes this transition more rewarding and gets you outside your comfort zone. Conversation exchanges are also an opportunity to help others, so you're working with someone who understands the language learning process and all of its many joys and frustrations.

I no longer get nervous before conversation exchanges, especially not with Alain, whom I've gotten to know well over the past two months. We're meeting this weekend, and I'm looking forward to hearing about the hike he took and how playing tennis with his son went. 

In my experience, learning a language through conversation exchanges has been rewarding and fun. And the best part? Watching them slowly unfold into friendships.