One simple, free hobby that will improve your understanding of the world

More than a chat.
More than a chat.
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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Hobbies make people happy. Taking up bird-watching, running a 5K, or learning to knit can help us reduce stress, meet new people, and live more meaningful lives. There’s one hobby in particular that’s unique in its ability to truly transform us: learning a new language.

Research has shown that there are many perks to knowing a second language. Bilingual people have slightly higher earnings, better creativity and memory, and a greater resistance to dementia. Some studies even suggest that bilingual children are better multitaskers, and tend to have a more complex understanding of their native language. Yet only 25% of American adults can even hold a conversation using another language, according to a 2006 Gallup Poll.

When a university language course costs up to $5,500 a semester, it’s no wonder so many American adults never become bilingual in their spare time. But there’s a free way to learn language that’s just as effective and even more enjoyable: Find a language partner.

As the daughter of a Korean immigrant mother and a white American father, I was raised in English, but always wanted to speak my mother’s tongue. So in college, I planned a semester-long study abroad at a Korean university and stayed with my relatives in Seoul for the six weeks leading up to the start of class.

When I first got there, I knew nothing but a botched, self-taught version of the Korean alphabet. But in those six weeks, I learned enough to skip the first semester or two of college-level Korean language curriculum.

How? I convinced the people around me to be my language exchange partners. The pact was simple: Let’s meet up, grab a coffee, and just talk. It wasn’t the only thing I did, but it sure beat rote learning vocabulary lists.

A longstanding tradition

The idea of learning Korean by chatting with native speakers dawned on me one night when I was trying to explain to my Korean family why I was carrying a rolled-up blanket and searching for a washing machine in their apartment building at 3 am. My 84-year-old grandmother and I resorted to acting out motions in the dark, and I quickly learned two critical words from it: “dog” and “vomit.”

Language exchanges put “the language in a social context, instead of pursuing an artificial narrative. It can really help,” says Todd Bryant, a language technology specialist at Dickinson College and founder of The Mixxer, a site that matches language learners for conversations on video chat for free.

The concept of peer-to-peer teaching, or “mutual instruction,” is not new. In one instance dating back to early 1800s, a short-staffed school in Chennai, India, designed a system where students would help each other learn various subjects. Then, in the 1960s, a German-French youth exchange organization solidified it as a formal teaching strategy when they created language partnership programs between French and German students.

“At the time, this was quite novel,” says Tim Lewis, director of postgraduate studies at the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology at Open University in the UK. “The aim was that people would get to know each other and form lifelong friendships, and grow a familiarity with each other’s culture and language.” The benefits of language exchange partnerships are now backed by years of qualitative research.

Six months ago, I found my current language exchange partner—a former elementary school teacher and recent immigrant from South Korea—on a free partner matchup site. We quickly exchanged our IDs on KakaoTalk, a Korean messaging app, and vetted each other before agreeing to meet up for coffee. Now, we’re close friends and meet face-to-face at least once a week. We can somewhat gracefully discuss Beyoncé in both Korean and English, or why Americans put their backpacks on coffee shop floors—a practice that horrifies her because of all the dirt and germs.

“You ultimately make a personal, social connection. It’s especially motivational,” Bryant said.

How to build a productive language exchange relationship

These days, language exchange partnerships often take place in person or on video chat, but even email exchanges can do wonders. A 1999 study (pdf) by researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, found that at least one month of email-based language exchange between Spanish and English learners improved grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing and an overall understanding of cultural differences.

No matter the medium, there’s two founding principles that make a successful partnership: autonomy and reciprocity, according to Lewis. Put simply, both partners should equally profit from the exchange, but each individual is ultimately responsible for what they learn.

“These are longstanding principles,” Lewis says. “It’s very much up to you as individuals to decide what you want, and then to support each other in achieving that.”

Here are three tips for doing a partnership well:

Find the right person.

“In my experience, finding a good language exchange partner is genuinely like dating,” said Kevin Chen, cofounder of italki, a Hong Kong-based language exchange site that matches learners with both peers and paid teachers. “You want to find someone that you share interests with. This obviously helps with generating topics to talk about.”

It’s true—finding the right person is key. I met my first language exchange partners on Craigslist (surprisingly, it went well) and italki, but I later met my current partner on Conversation Exchange. At first, it didn’t seem like we had much in common—she’s married and 13 years my senior—but we clicked.

With that said, take actual dating off the table. Language exchanges “have a funny reputation for generating romances,” as Chen put it, and that can often get in the way of a lasting linguistic partnership.

Get the basics down.

Even if it’s just reviewing notes from a French class you took 10 or 20 years ago, get some footing in the language beforehand so that you can at least struggle through the conversations. This could also mean planning ahead of each exchange.

“If you’re a beginner or even at low-intermediate, prepare questions in advance,” Bryant said. “Just conversational things so that you don’t have long periods of silence. They can be very open-ended questions.”

You can also plan for more complex topics in advance. Sometimes, if I want to ask my partner about abstract matters like South Korean politics, I make a list of words that will help me get through the conversation.

But be sure to also set aside a period of time to speak both languages. Otherwise, whoever speaks their target language better will take over the conversation to fill the silence.

Get personal.

Treat the language exchange like a friendship: Talk about the things that matter to you. A 2011 study (pdf) of Japanese and English language exchange partners suggests that talking about personal problems yielded higher meeting satisfaction.

Though it could be that partners are simply opening up as their meetings go well, personal experience tells me that we might all commit more to our language study if we embed real connections into them.

There’s no silver bullet for becoming fluent, and exchanges alone still may not get us there. At the very least, they can keep us learning and practicing. And just few hours a week outside of work can get you meaningful friendships, better speaking skills, and perspectives on another culture.