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An online magazine about Korean culture, food and hallyu based in Toronto, Canada

Kiwi in Korea: Language Exchange in Korea

Often people meet in cafes to study.

Often people meet in cafes to study.

What is a language exchange?

For a while I used to meet my Korean friend just for coffee and hanging out, however recently we started meeting once a week for coffee and some proper language exchange. A language exchange is pretty much what it sounds like. I’m learning Korean and speak English, and my friend is learning English and speaks Korean, so we’ve been meeting up and studying together so I can help her with English and she can help me with my Korean.

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My friend and I studying. She has TOEIC mock tests, I have a beginner Korean book.

What can you study?

Language exchanges can take on a lot of different forms. In our case my friend is studying for TOEIC and I’m struggling along with my low-level Korean books and vocabulary memorization. So she brings her TOEIC mock tests and we look at the answers she doesn’t understand, and I bring my books, and she usually quizzes me on my vocabulary and explains the usages. Because my Korean isn’t good enough to hold a proper conversation, we speak in English (with occasional simple Korean), which is useful for her speaking and listening skills. Once my Korean is better, we’ll have conversations in Korean as well as English. This is the most common kind of language exchange, usually talking in one language for half the conversation, and the other for the next half.

Courtesy of Busan Language Exchange Cafe (부산 언어 교환 카페)

A typical organised language exchange meeting. Courtesy of Busan Language Exchange Cafe (부산 언어 교환 카페)

Language exchange groups

There are many language exchange groups in Busan, and in other cities around Korea. These can be useful, but only if you focus on your learning. Often because Korean people speak better English than non-Koreans speak Korean, conversation can tend to steer into English and then stay there. This is less the fault of the Korean speaker, who is usually more than happy to teach you some Korean, and more a laziness on the part of the English speaker because it’s just so much easier. Also, English speakers are often more interested in making friends than actually studying Korean – I am definitely guilty of this!

However if you can find a well organised group, organisers will pair up a Korean speaker and an English speaker and then have set times for practicing English and Korean separately. They also encourage people to bring any books they are studying, which is especially useful for those learning Korean who are not up to conversation level yet (which is sadly the majority of us English speakers). Other groups are organised but a bit more casual, like the exchanges that rent a whole floor of a cafe and require a fee per person to attend. They tell you to bring books, games, or anything you want to practice, but don’t implement a set schedule for when to practice what. In this case, because everyone has to pay a fee, usually everyone is more serious about studying, so foreigners feel more encouraged to try their Korean conversation and get help with their textbooks.

Language exchange apps

People living in smaller places may have trouble finding established groups and this is where using a language exchange app can be handy. These apps are also great if you want to meet people one-on-one. Koreans using language exchange apps are usually looking for conversation practice, because unless your Korean is pretty good, it’s going to be hard to help a low-level English speaker with casual study. This doesn’t mean you won’t be contacted by Korean people with low-level English skills, but it does mean it will be difficult for you to communicate with each other and the text conversation will usually fizzle out before you organise a date to meet.

I usually search for someone who’s female, 25-35, living in Busan and who lists one of her interests as drinking coffee (the last isn’t mandatory, but it’s preferred haha). I also read their profile as it’s pretty easy to tell if their English will be good enough to communicate easily with me. Really though, if you are a native English speaker living in a Korean city, people will message you. I periodically abandon my apps due to being inundated with messages. The best idea is to screen people through the app, then add the people you connect best with on Kakaotalk. After a lot of time wasted sending replies and keeping up conversations that have led nowhere, I’ve learned to be pretty brutal. Most meetings I have had have gone really well, it’s usually less awkward than you imagine (sometimes it’s just as bad, but it’s only once so don’t sweat it). Ideally you guys will get on well, do some study, and set up another time to meet!

Language exchange apps/websites I have used:

  • Hellotalk – This is the best I think. There are a lot of people on here from all over Korea looking for language partners. It also has small profile pictures to dissuade dating. Not that there aren’t people on here looking for dates though, so make it obvious you want to study
  • MEEFF – Pretty new. It’s tagline is “Korean Friends!” but it’s set up a lot like Tinder. However I set my profile to women only, which works well. Only issue for me is that so far most people are from Seoul, so I haven’t made any buddies in Busan. Time will tell on this one.
  • conversationexchange.com – This was suggested to me on my personal blog. Don’t let the old school messaging system fool you! I joined a week ago and I’m already Kakaoing with 3 women living in Busan, with plenty of other messages in my inbox (too many actually).
  • interpals.net – An oldy but a goody? Kind of. I used this a couple of years ago, and still am in contact with three people I met on there. There’s a lot of flirting and dating going on, but also some decent people too. It’s worth a shot.
Take your books to a cafe, and message your language buddy any questions. Or call on the free wifi!

Take your books to a cafe, and message your language buddy any questions. Or call on the free wifi!

You don’t have to be in Korea!

There are lots of Koreans living overseas, and whether through searching Facebook for a group in your community or through an app, you should be able to find a Korean speaker who lives in your area. Of course, even if there’s no one close enough to meet face-to-face it doesn’t matter! Everyone is willing to chat on Kakaotalk, and if you’re feeling brave and/or comfortable, you can call or Skype your buddy as well to get some speaking and listening practice.

My ladies only group and I meeting for dinner. Courtesy of Busan Village Meetup group.

My ladies only group and I meeting for dinner. Courtesy of Busan Village Meetup group.

Make the most of it

In order to get the most out of a language exchange, you have to be prepared to make an effort to speak the language you’re learning, even if you are shy. You need to make mistakes and let yourself be corrected by your partner. If you don’t try at all, there’s no way for them to help you! This is especially relevant when you are a native English speaker, because it’s very easy to slip back into English where you feel most comfortable – however you will never learn anything this way, and while you may make a friend, you won’t further your language study.

Whatever type of language exchange you do, it’s up to you to take control of your own learning and make the effort to use your Korean.

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I hope you’ve found this useful, and wherever you are in the world you can do a language exchange! Let me know in the comments if you have a language partner, or have ever participated in a language exchange before. How did it go? What did you learn?

2 Comments

  1. Conversation exchanges are great ways to practice Korean (and make friends too). For me, one-on-one language exchanges where I bring my own material work best, although I’m not the best student. Here in Toronto, there are a couple of language exchange groups and I’ve found ConversationExchange.com works well here too.

  2. Thanks for article!! Accepted for teaching program this fall at Cdn university and may consider teaching english in Korea during summers and/or for longer there after graduation. Any suggestions appreciated.

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