Hosting cultural and language exchanges builds community
From my previous 2 articles, you should have a much better understanding of who your Spanish speaking students are and how to make them feel welcome to your classes at your organization.
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Please reply with your comments, questions, or suggestions – I would like to make this more of an ongoing conversation with ESL teachers from around the globe, so please, please, please let me know what you are thinking!
Today I want to let you in on a secret that I learned in 2005 when I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was studying Spanish in an intensive Spanish program at a small private school and living with an Argentine family. During my second week into the program the school organized a language exchange and the staff invited a bunch of their Argentine friends that were learning how to speak English to meet the Spanish immersion students and have a few drinks together.
That evening was a lot of fun and I made really good friends with Socrates, a Porteño (Argentine slang for someone from Buenos Aires) that was learning how to speak English. It was a very special night for me and one of my fondest memories of living in Argentina, and to this day Socrates always sends me a message on my birthday!
I reflect on this evening frequently and would like to share with you why this was such a magical experience. First and foremost, it was a great opportunity to practice Spanish, something I wanted so badly to perfect. Second, it was a social event designed to encourage community and friendship. Finally, one of the most powerful aspects of an exchange, is that I was able to help someone learn and practice English. This made me feel important and appreciated. I will elaborate on this last point shortly, but overall, the language exchange was a huge confidence booster and I made a new friend for life!
At The Language School, the school I started in NE Denver, we host 2 exchanges every week for our students and the local community. I would love to have you join us if you are in the area!
Another great part about an exchange is that, beyond that evening, Socrates and I exchanged contact information and began to meet almost daily to help each other practice. Years later I attribute this friendship and that evening in particular to be the most important factor to me being able to speak Spanish with confidence.
It is counter intuitive and I very rarely see other language schools do this, but it is so powerful that you must consider doing this. If done the right way, it will not only inspire your students to continue to learn English, but it will help them find conversation partners, make American friends, and truly integrate into American communities. By the way, this works with students from all over the world. I recently had my first Japanese lesson because of one of these exchanges and I can now introduce myself to someone in Japanese!
The key word is exchange. This is not meant to be an event to only practice English, but to let your ESL students meet Americans that are studying Spanish in order for it to be a mutually beneficial, back and forth exchange of practice, help, and friendship.
What else can you share at an event like this? Here are my 7 favorite things to exchange beyond language:
- Nonverbal communication
- Contact information
The psychology behind the language exchange
One of my favorite books is Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. One of the key principles in this book is that in order to make people like you, you must develop a genuine interest in them. Hosting an exchange does just that. By showing your students that you are interested in learning their language and willing to practice it with their guidance, you have taken the ultimate step towards making them feel welcome and will further fuel a genuine interest in them to learn English and stick with it for the long term.
My students constantly praise my ability to speak Spanish and tell me how much it inspires them to speak English. It’s reverse psychology at its finest!
Elaborating on psychology, let’s take a look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We can apply his theory to why your students are studying English to further demonstrate how powerful the language exchange is for your students.
For people moving to live here or simply traveling in the United States, learning how to speak English checks off the first two needs your ESL students have, which are physiological and safety needs. Speaking and understanding English will help your students eat, drink, find shelter, and feel safe.
By hosting an event outside of normal classes and introducing your ESL students to Americans that want to learn Spanish, you are creating community, and easily checking off the third need, which is a need for social belonging. To continue climbing the pyramid, your students need to build their self-esteem. Based in my own experience of having a conversation partner that was learning my native language, I have always found that the ideal person for your students to practice English with are students of their native language. This is because they can empathize with what your students are experiencing and will keep conversations easy enough that everyone can follow along. This builds confidence and thereby fulfills the self-esteem need.
Reaching the peak of Maslow’s pyramid is difficult to do for most people, and so many people live their lives lost because they are unable to reach self-actualization. This final need is for happiness according to Maslow and can only be met by helping others achieve one of the other four needs. This is probably the reason why you are teaching English. It is the reason why “flipping” the classroom has become such a hot topic in teaching. You see, by hosting an exchange and inviting your students to help you and your friends learn and practice Spanish, you have flipped the role from student to teacher. This will give them a feeling of immense satisfaction.
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