Language exchange groups have quickly spread all over Valencia and, I believe, in many other Spanish cities as well. Bars, pubs and restaurants, among others, have realized the economic potential of having conversation groups in their premises and are trying to attract as many tourists, foreign or native students as possible.
Drawn both by my curiosity and wish to meet new people, I decided to attend one of these meetings. The first thing that called my attention was the sitting arrangement. People were sitting at a long table outside and it seemed totally at random, without any specifications as to where you should sit.
In fact, most of the participants who surrounded me were Spanish locals who, like me, wanted to practise their English speaking skills so talking with them in English seemed a bit unnatural as we were communicating in English even though we could be doing it in Spanish with more ease and fluency (at least for some of the students of English who were there). There was also a Canadian boy trying to practise his Spanish but unwilling to speak in English in return. The situation was overwhelmingly chaotic to my senses. I even ended up teaching the difference between some English words to one boy sitting opposite me who had been struggling all night to communicate his ideas.
The only activity in which we had to participate was a quiz game played in teams. Personally, this was the only engaging and motivating task in the whole event. This was clearly not my idea of a successful language exchange. I kept asking myself what had gone wrong. Here are some of my conclusions:
1) There must be a coordinator or group leader. Someone with some language teaching experience and knowledge who is able to guide the attendees participation towards their objective: learning languages.
2) In this type of events you need to use tasks to engage students in one common objective and generate more participation, colaboration, real communication and most importantly, negotiation of meaning. Without tasks, the conversation usually revolves around exchanging personal information: age, nationality, residence, job, etc.
3) As I have already written in one post about interaction, negotiating meaning in conversation is key. This is why it is necessary to group people according to the languages they want to practise and the ones they master, so that if a Spanish local does not understand a native speaker of English, he/she can ask for clarification and the native English speaker can do the same in return. This is how real negotiation takes place.
4) The topics chosen for the activities should be known to all of the participants and not selected to motivate one cultural group. Some Spanish friends told me that most of the jokes and topics chosen for a famous language exchange event held here in Valencia are only understood by the USA born participants but not by the Spanish locals. Does that favour communication or business?
All in all, language exchange groups should focus on their primary objective which is helping people to practise and learn languages. In order to succeed they need to pay attention to how these groups are organized and coordinated, not just the profits they’ll make out of them.