When you travel, what do you do to get the know the local culture? There are endless ways to experience a new place, but participating in a cultural exchange can make it much easier to get an insiders look into how the locals live. Cultural exchanges can be formal, informal or somewhere in between; they are simply a tool for getting to know foreign cultures by interacting with people who come from a different place than you. Today we’re talking about some of the more established channels for cultural exchange and what you’ll love about them!
If you happen to still be a student, studying abroad is a great option for cultural exchange. Beyond having a fantastic excuse to live in a different country for a while, study abroad programs help you with logistics like getting a visa and finding a place to live. Many study abroad Universities offer classes that are immersive or help you get to know specific aspects of the local culture. The only downsides to studying abroad are that it can be way more expensive than independent travel and you can get so involved in the social scene at your own University that you fall into life in an expats-only bubble.
Whether you call it an intercambio de idomas, sprachaustausch, échange linguistique, 言語交換, språkutbyte, scambio linguistico or anything else, a language exchange is a meeting or event at which people come together to learn each other’s languages through talking. You can find language exchanges focused on a mix of the local language and any combination of other target languages. If you speak English, you can pretty much count on being able to find a language exchange in any major metropolitan city in the world, and even in many smaller towns. Going to a language exchange is a fun way to get real-world practice speaking in and listening to your target language, and it has an inherit social aspect as an added benefit. Since language exchanges usually consist of large groups of people, they are great for extroverts, but can be intimidating for introverts, and if you are just starting to learn a language, their loud and bustling nature can make it very difficult to understand people speaking in your target language. Regardless, it never hurts to give it a try and decide for yourself if this type of cultural exchange is for you.
Tandems are similar to language exchanges in that the point is for you to gain practice speaking or listening in a target language in exchange for helping others to practice your language, but they differ in that, as the name implies, they usually take place between two people, rather than in a group. This one-on-one type of exchange is great for people who want to practice a new language in a calm environment of their own choosing. Tandems offer the flexibility for you to determine the who, when and where of the exchange which is great for people with busy schedules or those who prefer to meet in a specific location. The drawbacks to language learning through tandems are that without much information going in, it can be difficult to find a partner who you relate to right off the bat, and you are typically communicating in multiple languages, which can be mentally taxing when you are trying to practice a specific foreign language.
Meetups cater to pretty much any facet of local culture that you can imagine, and if one doesn’t exist in your area, you can start it. Want to learn to dance Flamenco in Spain? There’s a Meetup for that. Want to learn to make sushi in Tokyo? There’s a Meetup for that too. Want to learn to weave baskets in Portland? Okay, maybe there’s not a Meetup for that, but you get the point… Meetup is great because you can join groups that cater to your interests and learn all sorts of things. Meetups tend to be held in the local language, which can be intimidating for a non-native if you aren’t at a level where you can really understand people in group settings yet, but they’re worth checking out none-the-less. If you are a local who wants to practice a foreign language, make sure to check Meetup.com for language exchange groups in your city!
Of course we couldn’t make this list without mentioning ourselves… our cultural exchanges revolve around what is arguably the most important part of any culture, the people! Culture Swap gives you an in with local communities and helps you get to know new people in a casual, care-free setting. Culture Swap exchanges are one-on-one and small group hang out sessions that take place around local activities. Joining these activities helps you meet interesting people, explore new places, get exclusive local insights and can even give you a way to rediscover your own city!
A stay in someone else’s home offers an inside glimpse into how locals live, whether you share a space a la CouchSurfing or rent an entire apartment through a service like Airbnb. When you share a space, you’re sure to get a new perspective and personal tips about the place you are visiting, but even if you rent out the whole space, these platforms are about community and it’s unusual that a host would be unwilling to offer you some of their own insight into the place they live. Tailored advice from locals is a resource that can otherwise be hard to come by, so a home stay offers a unique opportunity to actually live like a local without much research or advanced effort. Although many hosts open up their homes for financial compensation, the best hosts also do it because they genuinely enjoy learning about their guests and where they come from. Because there are a lot of moving parts involved in a home stay, things go wrong here and there, so it’s important to have flexible expectations, but when you find a great host, you’re sure to have an experience that you wouldn’t give up even for a stay at the most luxurious hotel in town.
WWOOF is an organization for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and provides one of the best types of cultural exchanges for nature lovers. As a WWOOFer, you can volunteer to work on organic farms around the world in exchange for food and lodging. WWOOFing offers a unique opportunity to learn traditional and modern methods of food production, reconnect with the land, interact with animals and spend time working outside. You can volunteer for a short or long duration with just about any type of farm you could think of, and some farms even offer modest financial compensation. Naturally, the vast majority of farms are located in rural areas, so if you prefer an urban landscape, WWOOFing might not be for you, but even if that’s the case, we’d encourage you to look into some of the shorter term opportunities and, who knows, maybe you’d enjoy a break from the city!