What Does it Mean to Intercambio?

Dear Teresa,

A sign I made once for an Intercambio

When I first came to Spain (which wasn’t actually Granada, but that’s a story for another day), I began to hear about intercambios, or a way to meet people and practice my Spanish while abroad. Because I am not the type of person to make friends at every bar (yes, that type people does exist and while I love them, it is not me), this sounded great. There are two ways to intercambio, in groups or one-on-one. Group intercambios, for someone who is a little socially awkward like me, seemed scary at first and individual intercambios sounded like a better option for starting out*.

Intercambio literally means exchange, and the intercambios I go to are specifically language exchanges. One-on-one language exchanges are great because they let you really practice your skills with a native speaker. I honestly believe that doing (speaking in this case) is one of the best ways to learn a new language, so this is a great way to improve. Most of the time, people who organize one-on-one intercambios are actually interested in learning the language (which may not always be true in group situations).

However, just like every person isn’t going to be your best friend (unless, of course, you are like the person described above who makes friends everywhere, with everyone), don’t expect all intercambios to hand you the perfect language practice buddy. And don’t expect that that all intercambios will stand the test of time. My first language exchange buddy ended up being a really good friend for two years...and I don’t think I have seen her since. I cannot actually give you a good reason why we stopped 'being friends,' but one day we stopped writing to meet up, and slowly lost all contact.

Meeting to intercambio.

Like all relationships, intercambios need to be built in a way that is beneficial for both people involved. This means that I cannot go into an intercambio expecting to speak Spanish 95% of the time, but that both people have to make an effort to speak their own language around 50% of the time. Does this ever work out perfectly? Not unless you set a timer or something. But it is the thought that counts―don’t ever make your practice buddy feel like you are taking advantage of them.

At the same time, I will say that I have probably spoken twice as much Spanish as English during my intercambio experiences. I have found that Spanish people take more comfort in speaking Spanish than I do speaking English in an exchange, making it easier for me to practice. However, this doesn’t take away from the intention that you should have for trying to make it 50/50.

So how do you find an intercambio? With all the online options, it is easy to find people near you who want to learn languages (from Facebook to Couchsurfing to dating sites). Your study abroad program may even organize intercambios. Otherwise, check out local languages schools―they usually organize exchanges for their students―, or just ask around. People are looking to improve their language skills all the time, and if you look a little bit you will find people who want to talk with you.


*Once I became more comfortable with my Spanish (and more desperate to meet people), I eventually branched out and went to my first group intercambio. I obviously lived to tell the tale, so I probably didn’t have to be so nervous about it.