Language exchange can be a funny thing. Sometimes you end up with a person that you have lots in common with and lots to talk about; other times it seems the only overlap is that you’re both learning a language. (I don’t think the latter necessarily means the partnership won’t work, incidentally.)
One thing that seems inevitable, at least in my experience so far, is that you won’t talk about very personal or delicate things. Certainly not at first.
You’ll talk about why you want to learn a language, what you hope to do with it, but you probably won’t talk about your fears so much. A few of my conversation exchange partners are trying to improve their English for financial reasons — they’ve hinted at unemployment or underemployment, but without a lot of detail or emotion. For my part, I’ve hinted at a difficult summer and also unhappiness with my job situation/burnout/midlife crisis-type stuff.
But I don’t say how terrified I am that all this language stuff won’t work out, that I’ll never get to fluency, that my brainweasels (which they definitely don’t know about!) will prevent me from doing it, that it will just be another project in my life that I started with great enthusiasm and crapped out on. And maybe they’re afraid and they don’t tell me: of being unable to get another job, of not being able to support themselves or their family, if they don’t learn English well enough.
I’ve told them that I admire them for diving in and working so diligently — through Skype exchanges, intensive courses, etc. — in order to try to reinvent their lives, to some degree, through language. I find it inspirational, especially for those who are in their 40s and upwards; I’m sliding towards 40 myself and definitely need stories about people my age changing their lives, when things feel impossible and I feel too old and stuck.
To them, I casually mention jobs I’m applying to in Brussels, how once my languages get better I’ll be eligible for even more jobs in the EU, etc.
I know I sound more confident than I feel. They certainly seem to act as if I have a chance of succeeding at this, and they act as if they have a chance too. Otherwise why are we taking the time to speak, if not to move forward together and encourage each other, right?
I’m trying to be the person they think I am: hard-working, consistent, at least somewhat cheerful and optimistic. I’m trying to act the way I want to feel. Sometimes it’s a facade that lasts just long enough to disconnect Skype, and then my mood crashes. But, you know, I’m trying. And maybe they’re trying to be the people that I see as well.
And if we all keep trying to be that person, well, we might just get somewhere.