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How Being a Foreign Language Student Saves My Sanity During the Coronavirus Lockdown

By Kerry Baker May 11, 2020 Lifestyle

With more time and less opportunity to socialize face to face during the pandemic, there couldn’t be a better time to put your dream of learning a second language into action.

Learning a language online gives you the opportunity to get a great mental work-out and share thoughts with people around the world who are in this crisis as well.

I never could have predicted that this daily practice would save my sanity in the long days of confinement we are going through. Now that it’s here, having these online relationships makes me feel as if I’ve been preparing for the pandemic for years.

Language Exchange Appointments Create Routine

When I set the weekly language exchange appointments up with Pedro, Auxi, Lourdes, Pepin, Ricard, and Javier four years ago, they gave me a reason to be up, dressed, and caffeinated by 9:00 a.m. when I was unemployed. Without these daily standing appointments, I might have lolled around my big feather comforter until noon. 

As the years went on, I continued the sessions as a way to prepare for life in Mexico, my current headquarters. And now, these daily practices with language partners from Europe have kept me going. Every day, I know I will have at least one face-to-face conversation with a person I don’t live with.

What You Need Is Enthusiasm

You absolutely do not need to be conversationally fluent to practice a second language on Skype through one of the many online language exchange and teaching sites. As long as you are enthusiastic and positive (i.e., excited to be there), you will make a great student.

When I started learning Spanish at age 57, several of my practice partners spoke much better English than I spoke Spanish. Now that I’ve studied for a few years, my Spanish is better than the English of a few of my newer practice partners.

But none of that matters. We all relish mastering a second language together and exchanging cultural insights like the college students we used to be.

Ultimate Beginner? No Problem!

If you are a beginner-beginner in learning a second language and want to be a part of the online learning boom, there are things you can do to bring yourself up to speed.

One of the best things to do as a principiante is to hire a bright, happy young tutor on a site such as italki to teach you until you develop the confidence to become a member of a language exchange site. 

When you search for a tutor from italki or a similar site, look at how the students rate each teacher. Tutors will work hard to make your session rewarding and earn a great rating.

You might prepare for these lessons by picking a topic and looking up the vocabulary. You can try writing out a half dozen sentences or questions such as “tell me about your home” (or in our current situation, “tell me about your last visit to a restaurant”). 

While lots of fun, speaking a second language can be more draining to brand new students than you might think. Most people can concentrate well for only 20–30 minutes at a time. So, for your first sessions, try hiring a tutor for no more than 30 minutes a few times a week so you can absorb more of each lesson.

Language Exchange Sites

Once you have learned the tricks of Skype and can engage in simple conversations with paid instructors, you can graduate to one of the free language exchange sites and practice freestyle with other students like you. 

Free and Paid Option

Free exchange sites such as My Language Exchange or Conversation Exchange have thousands of members; people who will help you with your second language in exchange for help with their English. They also offer a paid option that runs from $6.

Search Options

On some sites, such as My Language Exchange, you can search for practice partners based on age, sex, and country they live in. I like to practice in the morning, so I practice with people who live in Spain, where there is a 6–8 hour time zone difference.

To find language partners through membership sites, simply reach out through the site’s messaging system. I may reach out to 10 people for each practice partner I recruit. In a language exchange, you normally speak each language for 30 minutes (during the pandemic, my sessions tend to run longer.)

Native English Speakers Are Sought After

As a native English speaker, you have a real advantage in finding practice partners. People all over the world need English skills to advance in their careers. Many retired people take up English as a second language, especially Europeans.

Right now, my practice partners include a homemaker in Seville, a marketing executive in Barcelona, a schoolteacher in Madrid, and a college professor who lives outside Valencia. All but one of them are over 60 years old.

Don’t Disregard Non-Native Speakers

When reviewing website members to whom to reach out on these sites, don’t discount people who speak your chosen second language as a second language themselves. They can be great as potential practice partners, especially if you are a beginner student because they use fewer idioms and slang.

Use Some Sort of Structure

There are dozens of ways to structure your exchange sessions. You can agree to read easy stories to each other to practice pronunciation. You can use grammar exercises easily found online through sites like Mansion de Ingles or Saber Ingles. You can take songs in both languages and try to translate them. The opportunities are endless. 

Language Exchange and Covid-19

Every day, my language exchange partners and I exchange information on how the Covid-19 is affecting our cities and lives. Europeans have reacted a bit differently from how we did, demonstrating the effect culture has on how people respond to a crisis.

After that update, we move on to topics that bring smiles to our face and make us laugh – things we can still share, even alone in our homes.

Ultimately, you will develop vocabulary to have more robust conversations. When you demonstrate that you really care about their progress and are enjoying yourself, everyone will want to practice with you. 

Happy learning!

What language do you want to learn? Have you tried previously or are you an ultimate beginner? Please share any experience you have with language exchange platforms!

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The Author

Kerry Baker is the author website/blog Ventanas Mexico ( which provides resources to those considering full- or part-time life in Mexico. She is the author of three books, The Mexico Solution: Saving your money, sanity and quality of life through living in Mexico, If Only I Had a Place (a guide to renting in Mexico) and The Lazy Expat: Healthy recipes that translate in Mexico.

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